The Worthing Workshop ’68-’71

50 YEARS AGO WORTHING WAS A VERY DIFFERENT TOWN. It had the highest percentage of elderly people per head of any similarly sized community in England. It had a police force and local media that aggressively came down on any kind of youth culture. However, as the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s, a small coterie of hippies not only survived in Worthing but, for a brief period, even flourished. The engine at the heart of their activity was a loose collective called the Worthing Workshop.

Perhaps the key to the Workshop’s beginning was an extraordinary run of gigs put on almost every Thursday by promoter Freddy Bannister in either the Assembly Rooms or the Pier Pavilion. A who’s who of ‘60s pop played there as psychedelia blossomed and rock music was coming into being: Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett), The Who (three times), Cream, The Kinks, The Byrds, The Jeff Beck Group, Fleetwood Mac and many more. Local teenagers who’d just left school were inspired.

Following the example of the rising “arts lab” movement across the country, particularly the Brighton Combination and London’s Drury Lane Arts Lab, local liquid lighting enthusiast Jimmy Doody set up the Living Loving Workshop, which put on gigs at the Norfolk Hotel (Chapel Road, now demolished) and Findon’s Black Horse Pub. Doody moved on but his promotional unit mutated into a sprawling entity known as the Worthing Workshop, loosely directed by driven local longhairs and counterculture enthusiasts such as John May, Ian Grant, Andy Cowan- Martin, Nigel Thompson and Rod Cohen.

“I just got hooked,” recalls Grant, “It became more significant than anything else I was doing, learning to become a draughtsman or a surveyor or any trade job. I was fascinated by the music and by the people I was connecting with.”

The core of the group were initially based around 28 Grafton Road but then moved to a more palatial house at 30 Chesswood Road. They lived a nocturnal existence, rising every afternoon, but still managed to put on a plethora of events such as alternative poetry, street theatre, folk music, even Extra Sensory Perception sessions, utilising venues such as The Fountain pub (Slug & Lettuce, Chapel Road), the Art Annexe building that was behind The Swan pub on High Street, and spaces on Union Place.

“We’d set up every Saturday on Montague Street, just where the Odeon Cinema used to be,” recollects John May, “We’d sell underground newspapers such as Oz, IT and Friends, joss sticks, posters and so on. People would walk past saying, “That’s disgusting,” and one time a local mod came up and poured a bottle of perfume over me.”

On another occasion, the Worthing Herald ran a piece headlined “POLICE GAG THE HIPPY POETRY”, featuring a photograph of May reading beatnik figurehead Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘Underwear”. The report also states that a 100-strong crowd gathered, making hostile comments such as “What they need is a dose in the army”.

The Worthing Workshop had its own publication, Swan, printed on a mimeograph machine at Brighton’s Unicorn Bookshop. The mag later changed its name to Scab, reflecting how those involved felt intimidated by authoritarian pressure. Music, however, was the core of their activities. May persuaded Deep Purple to play for only £40, supported by the Spencer Davis Group, a benefit that raised loads of money for Workshop events. They put on local blues rock success
story Steamhammer, they put on Hawkwind, they put on folk singer Shirley Collins. May would DJ, under the name Freaky John May, while Ian Grant had taken over the lightship, calling himself Crystalline Foetus.

The Workshop also organised trips to see bands such as the Rolling Stones and Blind Faith play Hyde Park, and to the famed Isle of Wight Festivals of 1969 and 1970, and smaller festivals such as Plumpton and Harmony Farm. The Workshop even once put on a self written play in Worthing’s St John’s Ambulance headquarters, based on the Thunderclap Newman song ‘Something in the Air’. Alongside such counterculture arose a new interest in drugs, especially cannabis and LSD. “We all took LSD,” says May, “Generally it wasn’t about getting wasted all the time, it was about raising your consciousness. Because it was highly illegal, sometimes you’d end up sitting in darkened rooms with a candle, everyone a bit paranoid.”

May recalls meeting up with disapproving local mods at the Bowling Alley. A peace pact was made, with the mods’ caveat, “Just stay away from us when we’re on the pills”. There was no such peace with the police. Local law enforcement officers Ron Berry and Andrew Harvey were on a mission.

“They thought that if you started on cannabis you’d end up on heroin and would die,” remembers Ian Grant, “They were on a mission to save us from death and destitution. We weren’t robbing people or doing harm so it was more than likely also to do with our antiauthority ideals. In the end we were pretty much banned from holding any more do’s and we went up on the Downs at Cissbury Ring all night, an ideal place to go with guitars and a small sound system.”

However, the level of pressure was eventually not viable. John May spent his 21st birthday in the police station, after only being stopped and strip-searched the day
before. He moved to London in 1971 where he ended up writing for the underground press, working for Greenpeace and becoming a renowned music Journalist.

Grant, meanwhile, moved away in 1975, going onto a successful career in band management with clients such as The Stranglers and Big Country. “We thought we were going
change the world,” he says now, “How much we actually did so, looking back from 50 years later, is open to question. But it was an extraordinary time, and lots of things arose from that era; gay rights, the vegetarian food movement, an interest in eastern religion and meditation and so on. I sometimes wonder where that counterculture is today.”

Where? It could be here. Worthing, get off your phone and get amongst it. Let’s get prepared…

Do you have any memories of music life in Worthing? We’re interested in stories and scenes from any era, from the ‘30s and ‘40s to the ‘90s and Noughties.
Perhaps you have a photograph of yourself or a local band or occasion? We’d love to feature it and chat about it. Please email editorial@hereandnowmag.co.uk

Thomas H Green