TIME & PLACE: My Staging Post With The Renegade Rockers

Toyah Willcox spent 1978 in a warehouse where David Bowie and Boy George were among the many visitors, she tells Louise Johncox

n 1978, I lived in a huge British Rail warehouse in Battersea, in south London, with an arts community. It was a hotbed for bright young writers and a rehearsal room for Iggy Pop, David Bowie and John Cale. 

Back then it was called Mayhem, and its bang opposite Queenstown Road railway station. Steve Strange and Boy George had weekend parties there because it held anything up to 500 people. The parties were so chaotic that Id let them in on a Friday night and come back on Monday morning, and they never knew Id left. 

I shared with Adam Ants wife, Eve (they had broken up), an actor called Keith Hodges, the guitarist from Adam Ants band, Kevin Mooney, and a writer (Ive forgotten his name). It cost £60 a week for five of us and I lived there for two years. 

It was on the first floor above a repainting garage, which was phenomenally fumey and dirty. When we first got it, all that was in there were huge acid tanks with armour-plated glass I have no idea why. 

We took them apart and used the glass, which was almost an inch-and-a-half thick, as flooring. We put our bedrooms in on stilts. I split my bedroom into two floors because Im very short, just under 5ft. My rooms were full of books and painting materials. It was very eclectic because I had lots of possessions. I was into anything to do with art, anything visual. It was where I was forming all my ideas. 

Eve was a designer, so her bedroom was white, like a cube, and spacious. I think she had a workshop that she went to in the daytime. Some of the boys had an unpainted space of chipboard. We had no money, so everything was just thrown together, but it didnt matter because it was full of expression. Opposite us was a place where they built coffins and at night wed go over the wall and take the wood that they stored outside; virtually everything in our place was made from this wood. 

We had one toilet and no bathroom. The caretaker, who lived across the way, let us use his bath every other day or wed go down the road to the public baths. We didnt have a kitchen but I think we had a toaster and a camping grill in the communal space.

We never cooked wed make toast or go out and get fish and chips or a kebab. We painted the inside black and kept the main part as a stage and rehearsal room. Iggy Pop was the main one. There was one window that we boarded up because we had to do something about the noise, as Iggy Pops band was just so big you could hear it through a nuclear bomb shelter, it was that loud. 

My band also rehearsed there. We were having success on the London circuit, pulling 2,000 people a night, playing venues like the Lyceum. It was wonderful. I would have been about 19. 

We didnt have a television, but we had a record player in the communal area, which was just a boxed-in lounge. Back then, we listened to the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. At that time, Bowie was producing Iggy Pop so he would have come over to check the band. 

On the whole it was quiet during the daytime and lively in the evening. We all worked in our separate spaces, or I was out making movies or touring. 

It was a very busy time for me. In those two years, I made seven feature films and two albums. I started to make films like Quadrophenia and The Corn is Green. I was amassing tens of thousands of pounds so I ended up paying for everything. Increasingly, I was there less often because I started touring with the band. It got to the point where I became the money bag and it was like, well, why should I be paying? I needed to get out because I was starting to get well-known and I needed privacy. My life was so hectic and so full of turmoil that I wanted a base that was a little more welcoming. Actually, I think I was on the road for five or six years. 

Even to this day, more than 20 years on, people occasionally come up to me and say: I met you at the warehouse. 

Sunday Times
September 2002