Wood Wharf Studios in the 80s

Folks – a Phantom First today. Actually, probably a Phantom One-Off as I don’t want to make a habit of it, but I enjoyed this so much I’m making an exception here. I bring you a Guest Phantom.

No – not one of those ghastly things I keep being sent offering to write a blog for me on any subject I choose, all they want is to put a few cookies in it, I promise (though I confess the temptation to give them ‘a subject’ and see how they get on with it is strong…)

This, dear readers, is Phantophile Raymond Dunthorne’s experiences as aspiring drummer, gofer and Sandwich Maker to the Stars at the fabulously chaotic Wood Wharf studios in the days of music legend Billy Jenkins. It’s wonderful.

My only regret is that Raymond was so bloomin’ busy making craven images of idols in bread form that he never managed to take any photos. Not even of the sandwiches. He (and I) would love to see any that other Phantophiles out there may have (photos that is, not sarnies). Enjoy…

Wood Wharf Rehearsal Studio was next door to the last working barge yard on the Thames. In the day I would heave backline and drum kits from studio to studio to the sound of welding and some sort of barge-specific panel beating that involved the 6’6 curly-headed, bargeman repeatedly wazzocking the side of a barge with a sledge-hammer. At night local children would scamper over the barges leaping from one to the other, prompting yet another call to the river police, who eventually got sick of my misplaced concern and advised me – off the record – to get an air rifle and shoot near them.

The morning melge of industrial noises would be subsumed by the quiet sizzling of one of O’Hagan’s Sausages in the cottage kitchen, under the grill and watchful eye of Billy Jenkins. He – quite rightly –took his sausage seriously. I’d spend a lot of time in that kitchen, across the alleyway from the main studios, next door to the windowless back one, which sounded like you were rehearsing inside a shipping container. The upper floor of the cottage was where Billy, Annie and the twins lived.

When I wasn’t clearing studios, emptying ashtrays, not-recycling the empty Baltic lager cans (those were the days) and moving pre-booked gear from room to room while systematically failing to stop it getting stolen, I’d be cooking two huge turkeys for the week’s sandwich sales.

The catering really was one of the main earners and Annie oversaw it enthusiastically. I don’t know if a slip-up actually would have been more than my job was worth (£100 for 7 days a week, 11am to11pm) but I couldn’t afford to find out and I didn’t want to let Mark Ramsden, who had got me in the door, down.

It was an exciting operation: slicing peppers, radish, cucumber, carrot, stuffed olives and lettuce, all to extremely close tolerances, under the cormorant’s stare of Annie, who’d give me a Thatcher-like lecture if she spotted me risking the economy by buttering both slices of bread (one slice got the cheap catering margarine) or if I put so much as three blades of cress too many on a plate, before cling-filming it and writing the recipient’s name on it in marker pen.

I was an aspiring drummer relatively new to London and the cash was tempered with free studio time, plus all the turkey sandwiches I could eat. I think they said open access to turkey was part of the deal.

The place was relentlessly busy. Four bands in the day, generally someone you’d heard of, someone signed or about to be, or just various pros getting something into shape. Four bands in the evening, generally someone you hadn’t heard of and almost certainly never would. If you’re in a band, rehearse in the day. You’ll never make it otherwise.

Anyway, I made sandwiches for the lot of them.

Sometimes even if none were ordered. If they looked hungry and Annie wasn’t looking.

The big studio, with multiple soundproofed windows directly on to the river had just gone up not long before I started in 1980-something (I don’t want to think about it) just after Dire Straits and Kate Bush had been regulars in the next-biggest room. The owner of the land was an ex-magistrate and knew enough about planning law to ensure that all the building work was done at night, so nobody noticed.

This big room had a stage and Squeeze would book it out for a fortnight or more to get ready for a tour. The drummer, Gilson Lavis would park his camper van in the alley and live in it for the duration.

This struck me as peculiar.

They would all head out from about 4 in the afternoon and I’d practice on his kit in my downtime. Loose Tubes were regulars, which always meant a big sandwich order. I’d get the prepping done well in advance and was pretty quick, getting the salad arrangement down to such a fine art, I could do the face of whoever’s sandwich it was, the meager half-slices of things and stuffed olives making Raymond’s Sandwich Faces an obvious way to go.

There was one band I had a 100% success rate with. No need to write the name: the singer had a red beard (shredded carrot) the bass player was bald (easy) and the keyboard player was Chinese (obvious).

There was what looked like modern art on the walls of the second biggest room also directly fronting the river. These were large, abstract oil paintings by the owner’s wife. I can’t describe them, except to say that she must have been very angry about something. I tried to sell them of course. No takers.

There was a fairly idyllic flat above this room that no one ever lived in; it was for the owner’s ‘occasional use’ and stuffed full of statues. There might have been a chaise lounge. If not, there should have been. I’d have to dust and clean the flat prior to him flying in, almost literally once. He’d got clearance to land his float plane on the Thames and moor at Wood Wharf, but conditions weren’t favourable on the day. Whenever he did make it, there’d always be a brown envelope stuffed full of cash waiting for him on the coffee table.

You could get on to the roof in between the small studio and the second biggest: ‘No High Jinks on the Roof Terrace’ said the sign.

I’ve retained a few other things that mattered to me at the time. Don Henley booked in for a month, only to disappear after three weeks without paying the studio or the musicians. ‘Are you sure it was actually Don Henley?’ Annie interrogated. It wasn’t.

Billy thought this was hysterical. Django Bates laughed out loud at a Buddy Rich arrangement I was listening to in the office, quite rightly too. Bill Bruford stopped to enjoy some live Jan Garbarek I had on. I told Simon Napier-Bell to move his car (I didn’t ask, I told him) he laughed too. Then moved it.

The only person to treat me like I wasn’t doing something useful was a bloke who pulled up in his Porsche when I was looking after the place by myself for a few weeks. ‘How much do you want for this lot? A million do it?’ I said it would do it. He gave me a look over: ‘you’re the cleaner aren’t you?’ I said yes, even though I wasn’t.


9 Comments to “Wood Wharf Studios in the 80s”

  1. Chris says:

    Lovely memories. It’s hard to imagine some of the stars saying, “Can I have another round of your sumptuous turkey sandwiches please?”

    Great kicker as well!

  2. R&S says:

    Great inside on a not so well known part of Greenwich history! Thanks Phant’ to bring it up via a Pantophile, fantastic first attempt (and hopefully not the last of this quality). The atmosphere of these days and music business is well described.

  3. David says:

    Fantastic pen picture … Better days….

  4. David says:

    Check out this footage of Kate Bush rehearsing, with some scenes of the studios in the early 80s, Thameside…

  5. Stephen says:

    Billy Jenkins used to live three doors from me.

  6. Charlie says:

    Brings back some great memories of drumming with several bands at Wood Wharf in the late 80s. All evening rehearsals, nearly all bands who never progressed beyond the rehearsal studio, thus proving Raymond’s point.

    Every time I walk past the swanky flats there now I’ll point out to whoever I’m with that I used to rehearse there and so did Kate Bush and Dire Straits.

    I kept a copy of the studio brochure for years afterwards. Wish I still had it.

  7. Alison Southcombe says:

    Oh blimey almost in tears here. I hope he made it as a drummer. If not, he’s gotta be a writer surely? Is it the phantom hisself perchance? A nondeplume?

  8. thethirteenthcaesar says:

    lovely stuff

  9. WestCliffGB says:

    Wallowing in nostalgia here – what an amazing post. David’s YouTube link, especially the fog, take me back to a time of Greenwich that will never come back – everything’s too knowing and fiscally quantified now. More of the same, well similar, please Phant.