Guest blogger Rob Pateman remembers a legendary 80s London pub.
The Bell – an alternative universe
Kings Cross in the 1980s wasn’t the most salubrious location in London. Hub of the Tube and over ground network, it had a restless, edgy, energy; an undercurrent of danger that made most people pass through it as quickly as they could. Those who lingered were often sex workers, alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless – or queer.
The Bell on Pentonville Road was the main attraction for a certain type of queer looking for somewhere to drink, dance, laugh and love. And that type of queer came in all manner of guises – from elaborately quiffed rockabillies to plumed punks, black swathed Goths to shorn skinheads – many of them students or unemployed.
Despite their sartorial differences, the Bell crowd had plenty in common, not least their left of centre politics which saw them at the forefront of many significant LGBT groups of the time, most notably perhaps, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Donations to LGSM from the Bell were double that of any other venue (£1,500 by December 1984) which is all the more impressive given how young and skint the Bell crowd were.
Lesbians Against Pit Closures were supported with a benefit on one of the women-only nights and Lesbian and Gay Switchboard also reaped the profits from a benefit night. This combination of political activism and generosity made the Bell a beacon for people with a cause and a collection bucket, including the Terence Higgins Trust, ACT UP, OutRage and striking print workers.
The other common denominator for the Bell crowd was their taste in music which, like their politics, was leftfield, quirky, (very) specific and frequently obscure. The pop and Hi-NRG music so prevalent in gay pubs and clubs didn’t get a look in at the Bell.
Think punk, new wave, indie rock and synths. The Smiths, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Associates, The Cult, the KLF, Kate Bush – these are the more well-known artists whose records caused a stir on the Bell’s relatively small dancefloor. Most of the tracks were niche and felt like closely-guarded secrets that only those who were there should know.
The Famous (and the Infamous)
And some of the artists found on the decks could also be found queuing at the bar too. Not to mention faces from film, TV and fashion including Jimmy Somerville, Sinead O’Connor, Culture Club’s Helen Terry, The Associate’s Billy MacKenzie, dancer Michael Clark, director Derek Jarman, designer John Paul Gaultier and (very briefly) Morrissey.