Putting prog on the map: Penge
Upper Norwood, commonly referred to as Crystal Palace, is a former ProgBlog stamping ground (see https://www.progblog.co.uk/post/a-progblog-guide-to-crystal-palace) from when I lived in Colby Road opposite Gipsy Hill station between 1985 and 1986 in a dodgy basement flat. The area has undergone massive redevelopment in the intervening years and I go back from time-to-time to look at modernist furniture in Crystal Palace Antiques, make occasional visits to the Everyman cinema, browse the vinyl in Bambino’s basement or Haynes Lane market, or stop for a coffee and vegan cake in one of the many cafés.
Crystal Palace Park has always been a favourite destination though for a long time the only parts I’d see were between Crystal Palace station or the car park and the squash courts in the National Sports Centre. Two organisations, Invisible Palace and the Norwood Society, hold local walks and events which prompted me to explore more of the architecture of the area, including the award-winning energy-efficient Spinney Gardens housing scheme by Andrew Ogorlazek and Peter Chlapowski, completed while I lived in the area in 1985 (see https://www.instagram.com/p/CSllX_dIxEk/), and Rosemary Stjernstedt’s Central Hill Estate, an early exploration of Le Corbusier’s ‘hill town’ concept in England built between 1966-74 and currently under threat of imminent demolition by Lambeth Council (https://www.instagram.com/p/CVGgPj9obQ1/).
Central Hill Estate, Upper Norwood
One area I hadn’t given too much thought to was Penge, with its High Street heading off south eastwards from Penge Gate, the most easterly point of Crystal Palace Park. Originally recorded in an Anglo-Saxon deed as ‘Penceat’ meaning ‘edge of wood’ in Celtic, a reference to the settlement’s position in relation to the Great North Wood, Penge was mostly farmland until the arrival of the railways, becoming sought-after in Victorian times due to its proximity to Paxton’s Crystal Palace. A couple of recent forays indicated that Penge is a beacon for diversity and revolutionary fervour, judging by the sticker messages applied to the street furniture, and it also has some interesting architecture, like the Grade II listed Royal Watermen’s and Lightermen's Asylum (https://www.instagram.com/p/CRPbEE3Hzw-/).
Street furniture sticker decorations, Penge
However, the most important discovery was the branch of Revolution Records which opened at the beginning of April this year, run by Ken and Conrad. It specialises in selling pre-loved vinyl along with a selection of new releases, CDs, music-related books, T-shirts, posters and more. It describes itself as a dog-friendly shop and a destination for the whole community, not only vinyl lovers and judging by the chat between customers and staff, the store has already become an established favourite with the locals. It seems entirely fitting that local textile artist Teri Berkengoff donated one of her upcycled fabric quilts, Penge Calling to the store, where it takes pride of place in the shop window. The work is a celebration of local musicians and events and it was the Crystal Palace Garden Parties, held in the former Crystal Palace Bowl, which first caught my eye. Alan White’s first UK appearance as the Yes drummer was on 2nd September 1972 at the Crystal Palace Bowl. Penge also celebrates its links to David Bowie though he never lived there - he lived in nearby Beckenham - however, he wrote the following lyric on Did You Ever Have a Dream, the B side of his first single Love You Till Tuesday from 1967:
It's a very special knowledge that you've got, my friend
You can walk around in New York while you sleep in Penge
My haul in Revolution Records included Camel’s Pressure Points, Marillion’s Real to Reel, and Union by Yes, the first time I’ve ever seen it in LP format. As I went to pay, Real to Reel sparked off a Penge-related tale: the fireplace on the back of the sleeve of Script for a Jester’s Tear painted by Mark Wilkinson was based on the fireplace in the artist’s bedsit in Kingswood Road, Penge, where he was living at the time the album was released.
Revolution Records Penge
I’m pretty sure there are plenty of Marillion fans aware of this connection with south London but as far as I can make out, the first time this rather obscure fact was mentioned was in an on-line Prog article by Malcolm Dome in 2015, under the title Cover Story: Marillion - Script For A Jester's Tear where Wilkinson tells the journalist “I was actually painting my own place in Penge, so a lot of what you see reflects my situation at the time.” Despite looking back through physical copies of the magazine, I couldn’t detect a print version of the story until I was pointed to Record Collector Presents Marillion from May this year. Even Dom Lawson’s article about Mark Wilkinson The Genesis of the Jester in Prog 104 (December 2019), appended to a lengthy piece by Jerry Ewing celebrating 40 years of the band doesn’t mention the Penge bedsit, though the text is illustrated by Wilkinson’s Polaroids of the fireplace, used as prep work for the final art.
Polaroids of the Kingswood Road fireplace used as preparatory work for the cover painting on Script for a Jester's Tear (Mark Wilkinson)
Jo Kendall’s A Portrait of the Artist Q&A with Mark Wilkinson in Record Collector is a good read, with intelligent questions answered in full (Kendall is Associate Editor at Prog magazine). Wilkinson was lucky to get the Marillion commission, with a serendipitous overheard conversion in a Penge pub concerning the design company Torchlight looking for a new artist to work with ‘a band who just signed to EMI’. Wilkinson contacted Torchlight’s Jo Mirowski the next day and arranged to show them his portfolio and was initially asked to only do the artwork for the forthcoming singles but was subsequently invited to design the gatefold album sleeve.
The idea of the Jester came from Fish, dating back to the Market Square Heroes single, who jotted down ideas for the album illustration on a piece of paper. Wilkinson worked on aspects of the mundane, having picked up on the band’s edginess and reflecting the lyrics’ “observations of real life suffused with attitude” which the artist recognised as prog, but not the prog of the 70s. This was when he admitted that the illustration was based on his bedsit in Penge, “so I didn’t have to look far for inspiration!” If you look closely at the Polaroids you can also see his TV which makes it onto the album sleeve.
Despite never having heard of the band I was instantly drawn to the album sleeve the first time I saw it, in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s, because there wasn’t anything else like it. I didn’t have much spare cash, so although I was tempted by what also struck me as looking like prog, based on the instrumentation and detailed, almost-surreal gatefold sleeve painting, I didn’t buy the album when it was released, finally hearing them when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops promoting the excellent Garden Party single, which was the first piece of Marillion music I owned. I was living in a series of dingy bedsits and flats in south London around that time so I have a good feel for the authenticity of the artwork. In the Q&A Wilkinson details how he created the look of the damp patches, which were unavoidable in poorly-maintained Victorian houses divided up to maximise income for the landlord.
Gatefold sleeve of Script for a Jester's Tear with Mark Wilkinson's artwork
The album was a resounding success, going on to spend 31 weeks in the UK album charts, peaking at no.7 and enabling Marillion to appear second on the bill at the 1983 Reading Festival. I’d assign some of the success to Wilkinson’s artwork. Having worked on the two pre-album singles Market Square Heroes and He Knows You Know his relationship with the band had become mutually beneficial, with the artwork creating instantly recognisable imagery for Marillion akin to the link between Roger Dean and Yes. The artwork was evidently popular with fans too, with Marillion merchandise sales second only to Iron Maiden at one stage.
Between 2014 and 2015 there was a column in Prog magazine written by rock gazetteer David Roberts, the author of Rock Atlas called Locus Focus which had the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some item of musical iconography appeals to me, and while I appreciate that a ‘rock atlas’ is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street), the idea seems somehow specifically appropriate for prog. Script for a Jester’s Tear marked an important moment for prog, and I find it hard to separate the album artwork from the band’s success. For this reason Mark Wilkinson’s fireplace would fully deserve a place in any rock atlas.
It’s ironic that a Victorian fireplace should feature in the illustration of a dingy bedsit circa 1982. Anyone who has moved to Penge since the reinvention and extension of the former East London Line as London Overground will appreciate the appeal of the feature fireplace and how much it adds to the value of the property. I imagine it’s still there in Kingswood Road.
Polaroid photos of the Kingswood Road fireplace supplied by Mark Wilkinson, used with permission