Hanging out with some punks.
Some months back, during one of those late summer boons that can lead to long, impromptu walks to nowhere in particular, I found myself roaming the Grand Union Canal. Starting at the vast lifestyle shopping mall that is Coal Drops Yard and heading west, we almost forgot what was ahead. Without warning, the canal burst into life, revealing a throng of bare chests and Bluetooth speakers. There were splintered circles of teenagers smoking weed, Instagram boyfriends in beige tracksuits, nervous American tourists and wild-eyed, beer-tanned wrong ‘uns walking German shepherds on rope leads.
‘Oh god,’ said my companion. ‘It’s Camden.’
Although I’ve never actually lived in Camden Town, it does feel as if I grew up there. In my early teens, I went there to spend my pocket money on the imported crazes of the day – wallet chains, band T-shirts, weed paraphernalia and Thrasher DVDs. But it was the vibe on the streets, more than the tat on the shelves, that kept me coming back.
Camden didn’t look or feel like anywhere else in Britain to me. It was ramshackle and almost lawless. To a boy from the ‘burbs it appeared like worlds I’d only seen on TV; like Romeo + Juliet, like Empire Records, MTV and Japanese RPGs. A town that had a foot in the future.
Later, as I started drinking and venturing out on my own, Camden would bring forth new temptations. It was the home of underage, indie scene excess; a disturbing moment in time that has been dragged up by the Russell Brand revelations. It’s a world I know all too well; the infamously tolerant bouncers at Club NME; the vast old piss pubs that probably would serve you if you were openly brandishing a weapon, the fleets of 30-something men whispering in teenage girls’ ears. Much has been made of the ‘indie sleaze’ scene, and its darkest land was undoubtedly Camden. It was a place where things were allowed to slide.
Despite this more recent association with skinny jeans and slimeballs, the area has incubated some incredible scenes over the last 50 years. It will always be indelibly linked to the word ‘subculture’, and almost every British street tribe has made NW1 its home at one point or another. Of course there are the canonical groups: punks, goths, skinheads and emos, the ones who you can still see glimpses of today. Yet it was also the heartland of more niche communities; acid jazz, grindcore, rare groove, rivetheads, candy ravers. It’s also a locale that has attracted some famously ‘difficult’ people; like Walter Sickert, Alan Bennett and Dappy from N-Dubz.
In the months after my accidental visit, I started visiting Camden semi-regularly, in an effort to understand where it sits now, and if it still shelters those subcultures.
Walking out of the station one bleak autumn day, I’m reminded by what an outlier the area is in contemporary London life. I would guess that about 70% of people I know live within a few miles of it, yet nobody ever seems to go there, bar the occasional work-related event at the Roundhouse. Even the Camden Art Centre is not actually in Camden. It exists on the peripheries of the city’s consciousness, like an uncle living in Thailand that nobody talks about.
It isn’t so much of a throwback, as a time-warping wormhole of post-war ‘alternative’ culture. Somehow it manages to be part Cool Britannia, part Emily the Strange; a little bit K-pop, but with a lingering sense of weary, grotty Withnail and I-era dread. For me, it’s the latter I will always associate it with. Camden has a long association with listlessness and displacement, dating back to the Arlington House hostel (once the home of Brendan Behan, and featured in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London) and today its a place where bag ladies and street drinkers rub shoulders with advertising executives.
For Camden Lock Wharf has been rebranded by a creative agency. After being bought out by a consortium of secretive billionaires – including Israeli tech-entrepreneur Teddy Sagi and coiffured hospitality tycoon Richard Caring – the rickety old markets of old have become permanent structures, offering a peculiar new kind of consumerism. Loud haggling and under-the-counter deals have made way for polished, airport-style floors, private security and stainless steel kiosks selling mochi balls, bubble waffles and jackfruit-loaded fries. There is even an official Instagram account, producing short form content with its own roster of presenters. It has become, to parrot a bit of contemporary vernacular, ‘normified’.
I browse through a stall which seems to do most of its trade in photorealistic portraits of Amy Winehouse. When I first started going out in Camden, Winehouse was the queen of this town. Her presence was noticed and gossiped about, and The Hawley Arms became a tabloid byword for celebrity debauchery. But after the music scene moved further east, and towards a more malleable kind of pop star, Winehouse stayed loyal to Camden. She lived here, she died here, and the area has thanked her with tours to her house and a hideous bronze in the Stables Market. In a grim, all-too-recent way, Winehouse has become to Camden what Toulouse Lautrec became to Pigalle. A tragic mascot, a dark symbol of excess.
There are some last remaining libertines in Camden Town: chief among them, Anderson Garcia Rodrigues, a.k.a, ‘Zombiepunk’. The bridge over the lock has long been a spot for London’s crust punk community to congregate, but in recent years, that clientele has fallen by the wayside, leaving Rodrigues as quite literally, the Last of the Mohicans. Still, with almost 100,000 Instagram followers, he’s not entirely alone. Like nearly everyone else in Camden Town, Rodrigues is a content creator, and his calling card is spray-stencilling the anarchy sign on the jackets and rucksacks of gleeful daytrippers. Penny Rimbaud would not approve, but Camden punks have been trading photo opportunities for cash for many a year.
When I arrive, Rodrigues is embroiled in some kind of territorial dispute with another bizarro-influencer. The other guy – a wizened, UK hip hop-looking character in a silver chain and fitted cap – is shouting something about ‘official TikTok live’, which leads to a confrontation between the pair as they jostle over space on the bridge’s ledge. Soon, this becomes a near-fight and local bobbies swamp the scene. ‘This happens all the time,’ shouts Rodrigues’s adversary, another skirmish in the long-running turf war at one of Europe’s major tourist spots.
I think better of getting involved and head to the Stables Market, where that familiar aroma of damp leather and incense really starts to hang. At the entrance to Stables, once the home of a nunchuk stall, a huge sign towers above the entrance. ‘Crazy Golf. Epic Cocktails. Weird Junk’, it reads; a kind of boil-in-the-bag quirkiness, too lazy to even give itself an aesthetic concept beyond ‘weird’. There is more food here; smash burgers, rice bowls, foot-long hotdogs and cheese wheel tagliatelle, which you can eat in COVID-era perspex booths if you please. This is the experience economy brought to a logical endpoint, a shopping precinct where nothing lasts longer than a few mouthfuls, or a quick run round the Tomb Raider: The Live Experience.
I rummage through rails of German army jackets and Skinny Puppy T-shirts, and start to consider the people who work here. Many of them seem to be of an age which suggests they’ve been at this for the long-term, and perhaps through some false memory, I even half recognise a few of them from my youth. In this New Camden, they appear like the resettled old ladies put up in luxury digs after the houses they grew up in fall prey to the wrecking ball.
Time was, Camden could incubate all these different outsiders, operating as a rare safe zone in a relatively conservative country. Now, in an increasingly digital, atomised culture – where symbols of political disobedience become cheap memes, the area is a curio at best. For the people who hail from more traditional societies – many who’ve gathered here today – Camden probably still does represent a kind of ‘other’, but none of it is going to make the front cover of the Daily Mirror. In fact, those last remaining punks and goths might as well be Beefeaters or gondoliers. As Perry Farrell, another alternative icon, once said; nothing is shocking.
I then make my way to the Sagrada Família of Camden subculture: Cyberdog. The first time I came here, it felt like stepping into a Luc Besson film, with its pounding EBM tunes, synthetic skirts and podium dancers – seven feet tall in their LED platforms and likely still high from the night before. Looking back, it seems that Cyberdog was the first afterparty I ever went to, my first exposure to dilated pupils and rambling, contorted chats. I wonder if this is little more than a false memory, based on 10% reality and 90% nostalgic conjecture, but one YouTube comment suggests I really did witness something like this:
Love this place. After a night at Peach, at the Camden Palace, we’d go to Cyberdog to continue the rave. There would be heaps of randoms enjoying the remnants of the night before’s treats, whilst tourists wandered around the shop thinking we were staff or a show of some description
Cyberdog remains a thrillingly different place to be. Yet looking at the young staff with their goggles and strappy vests on, I wonder how many of them actually ‘live’ this life, how many of them are off to a five day progressive trance weekender in Turku next month.
Years ago, I remember not understanding how Cyberdog made any money, with most of its customers just gawping, rubbernecking and taking photos in the neon gas masks. But now they seem to have found a way. Front-of-house now has an array of cyber-nicknacks, small, cheap, take-home trinkets and even a vending machine. It feels like what it probably is; a subcultural gift shop for a subcultural theme park. Camden Town? It’s Thorpe Park with syphilis.