The Black Cap, Camden, London (with Joe Pop)

London’s heart broke when legendary drag bar ‘The Black Cap’ closed in 2015. I caught up with artist, music fan and dj Joe Pop to talk about his life as a ‘punk kid’, the ‘dignity in toast’ rule, and watching Pete Burns perform their heart to a bar full of bewildered patrons.


Joe Pop 0:00
People like Adrella, Regina, Lily Savage were superheroes. They were cheerleaders.

K 0:09
I’m K Anderson and you are listening to lost spaces, a podcast that mourns the death of queer nightlife. Every episode, I talk to a different person about a venue from their past, the memories they created there, and the people that they used to know. Joe Pop is an artist music fan and punk rock DJ that was born and bred in London. We spoke about the Black Cap and legendary bar in Camden Town, London, which was open from the mid 1960s until it closed in 2015.

Joe Pop 1:06
I remember the Black Cap in Camden, had been a gay pub, since I’m saying the 60s but possibly beforehand, I’m sure I first walked in there because it’s in the air I was born and grow up in first time I went there was about 1979 when I was 16/17. And I walked in and I was this punk kid who was my thing has always been that I was from a young age, I knew I was gay. And I was quite sort of fine with that. But I was trying to find how to be gay. Where was my tribe? Where were my people. And I remember walking into the black cap in 1979. And it not being full of people in leather jackets and spiky hair like me, it was full of you know, well, at the time, it seemed like everyone seemed to have a check shirt and the moustache, I’m sure it was much more desperate than that. But that’s how it felt.

Oh, how times have changed.

Joe Pop
But it was overwhelmingly but then also, I was young and everything, everything. So was overwhelming to me at that time. So I remember going there on a Sunday lunchtime, which was the Black Cap was always very well known for Sunday lunchtime stuff. So anyway, so I tried that once. And I didn’t go back there for a long time. You know, I was a punk kid, and I was looking for my tribe. And we’re people. And so let’s carry on more. So my life gets to the point of being about 1990. And I stopped going to the black cat quite often, because it’s not far from where I live, I would have been, I’m just trying to think we’re talking about I’m in my late 20s, early 30s. I was born in 62. So I’m talking from about 90 onwards. So it’s a window between 90 to 95. I should point out and I really want to emphasise that my memories, and particularly my time frame is all a bit soaked Insider. So if I will sometimes get dates and events and things a bit blended or mistaken, but

K 3:05
there’s no one here to argue with you. Exactly.

Joe Pop 3:11
Anyway, I was in relationship. I was in college, I went to college as a mature student, things were coming together for me in London after a fairly tricky 20s my late 20s and 30s were where I started to feel more myself, I found starts to finally fit, find, you know, my make the friends that I wanted and was doing the things that I wanted, I had a relationship with somebody I wanted to be with at the time, it felt after a long time. The 80s in particular, were a tough, tough time for me. And or a difficult time as didn’t find who I where I wanted to be or I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. From the night from about 1990 onwards, I started to be a lot more happy and enjoying my life more in my memory. It was one of the things I liked about it was it was big enough that there was quite a few people there. But it wasn’t so big like going somewhere like heaven, which was you know, just a you know, felt like a sports centre with a miserable other things I liked about it were really disparate. It was lots of different types of people being Camden there was, you know, slightly more punky people as well. It was at the time, I think one of the few places to have a late license after 11. So it became very popular with a wide range of people and like anywhere you go somewhere enough, it becomes familiar and it becomes comfortable. I remember things like and again, my memory of data is rotten. They extended the the upstairs. there hadn’t been an upstairs bar, I think at one point and then there was an upstairs bar and it was quite small. And then it got extended and made a lot bigger and hadn’t outside terrorists. And again, I can’t remember exactly when this all happened but suddenly became physically a much nicer place. You know, you could smoke outside on the terrorists. It was there was more room than it was just a fun place to be. And it felt even at the time, at the time with with places like Soho and Vauxhall were starting to come into their own as well, an awful lot of the pubs and places felt like you went to one particular place and you would meet a certain type of person at the black cab, it always felt like it was much more mixed. The blackcap seems to have I like to because there seems to be more women, it was just generally much more of a mixed crowd, which I’ve always found, you know, my life is a mixed crowd. I like to be places which reflect that. Yeah. Also as well, it wasn’t very it, because we see in the 80s there were go pubs everywhere. I mean, there were there were, you know, ones in, you know, wood green, there were everywhere, as opposed to concentrated in really small metropolitan areas like voxel. And so, and the black cat hung on like that, as being, you know, a suburb, you know, Camden This is compared to the west end is still a suburb. So you’ve got very mixed crowd of people, you’ve got people that, for instance, came from further out, and their idea of coming into town was to come to the black cap. So you would meet people that came from Hertfordshire, Potters Bar, Barnet, you know, these sort of places that maybe didn’t have their own gay pubs. So their idea of coming to the west end was to come to Canada. And I remember a friend of mine saying to me, it’s happening in a gay pub in Portsmouth, and it is, you know, just like a mixture of people, not as it always felt less posey than, say something in the West End,

K 6:29
just for anyone who isn’t familiar with the venue. Can you describe, like, physically, right, physically

Joe Pop 6:35
what it was like, and again, it went through quite a few permutations and was developed to my view, but I’ll talk about what I remember the place as when I went mostly. And that was towards the end. And that was because the venue is now closed it closed a few years ago. Yeah, how it was towards the end, but I think it was the last easily the last 10 years or so. So you walked it was a very old pub, the pub had been there for years. And what I liked about it was right slap bang, in the middle of Camden High Street, everyone knew was a gay pub. And towards the end, you know, they would have they had rainbow flags in the windows and things It was very obvious it wasn’t now as time changed, it became quite, it was very much part of the Camden landscape. So you walked in to this imposing pub, and you were in a foyer, and in front of you with double doors that took you into the lower bar, which was more of a club area. I know that in days that I can’t remember it was only the venue was only downstairs. But how I remembered it later was it was a nightclubs or bar venue we walked in, it was a long, thin room, there was a bar running down the side of the right, and then it opens out into a slightly larger sort of dance floor space. And there was a stage. One thing I should say about the Black Cap is that it was mostly known as being you know, it was the London Palladium of Drag, it was very, very well known for drag acts in the same way that the RVT on the other side of the river had been. So you had the downstairs but I know for instance of all the walls of the whole place downstairs and upstairs were framed with enormous photos of drag queens from the years gone by most of the 60s and 70s and 80s, including some beautiful huge photos of famous drag queens like from the 60s, Mrs. Shuffle, work. And then from the 70s, the disappointed sisters and Regina phone. And I think that Lily Savage, but then lots and lots of other drag queens who were much more, you know, less widely known, but were very much cherished Adrella. I remember lots of photos, which I really liked. I love those pictures now think about how important they were. So you have this downstairs and then it was quite a big sweeping staircase that went upstairs. And you went into the upstairs bar, which I remember it being smallish, and then it got extended, it was a big bar and a lot of space. And then it opened on to a outside space garden. And it was all a decent size you like I said it was it was big enough to be interesting and have enough people to keep you interested but also not a huge aircraft. So anyway, that’s physically what it was like.

K 9:11
Okay, so if we go back to Joe, at that time, you were in a relationship

Joe Pop 9:15
I was I was just I was and when I say that is like my me gay being a gay man in London, finally a lot of disparate things were coming together. And the relationship was with someone I’m not with now, but at the time, we both gave each other courage to go out and do things and find things. Also London was changing as well. You know, it was there were more options.

K 9:38
And what do you mean by that more options,

Joe Pop 9:40
places that we wanted a combination of, I think the type of places to go out became more varied. Plus also that I was AI less probably needed everything to be exactly like I wanted, and I was also had more I was braver and more gregarious in the social. So I’m in my late 20s everything took quite Nothing. This is a feminist story. Lots of gay men is like, everything takes longer, you know you’re in a perpetual at your adolescence seems to go on and on. So I had a partner, and we gave each other courage to explore things together. And I was meeting people who were other disparate, self perceived gay misfits, people who I still am good friends with now. And that was, you know, having comrades and having friends. And that was lovely. And we all live vaguely near each other, the black cat was a good place for us to go to. And I think that the reason that we would go there together was geographically it was easy. And I think that they probably would all like it for the same reason I do. It was desperate. It was it was fun. It was cheap drinks would be cheaper than the West and also though it was very easy to get sex in the black cap. It was not the primary reason that people went and writing down get

K 10:55
sex. I’ll come is gonna be telling about that.

Joe Pop 11:00
Yeah, it was very easy, but it was that was part of the deal. Not all the deal. You know, like a lot of the men’s bars in Yeah, Mr. Murray. Yeah, there’s

K 11:08
a very clear driver to be the

Joe Pop 11:11
rest of the blackcap I mean, I’ll come into it but the gist of it was was night evening evening mean Fun, fun, fun Fun, literally. Okay. 11 o’clock we’d all split up and look moody in a corner.

K 11:23
But that would be what a shame that there’s no visual here because I’d ask you to show me your your moody face.

Joe Pop 11:29
Same as everybody’s movie. Don’t worry. It’s It’s It’s one that basically says I’m mean and, and unapproachable. But at the same time. It’s always that thing of like that man over there, obviously. Looks like he wants to kill you. So he obviously fancies.

K 11:48
My thing. My Yeah. When when I was newly exploring that face and its use in public spaces. Everyone would just come up to me and be like, oh, cheer up. It might not happen. That’s not what I want.

Joe Pop 12:04
Ironically, I think the most the best place to pick up is a smile. But it just takes you away. That one out. Yeah.

K 12:10
Yeah. And it depends, you know, how overeager you look with your smile. No wonder apps are so popular. You were also talking about a time before? Yeah.

Joe Pop 12:26
So we’re talking about a time where people had to actually go out to contact have contact with other gay people. I remember in my journey before I was no, like I said, I was always out to my myself and my friends. But I could never quite work out how to do my gay life. In the 80s, for instance, personal ads and City Limits was very much part of what I did and what

K 12:47
and what is City Limits is like a Time Out or

Joe Pop 12:49
City Limits was Yes. What happened was is there was a Time Out, I think I’ve got this right Time Out went into some industrial action and all the journalists went on strike, all the big journalists went and started up city limits. And so yes, city limits came out of timeout and city limits was always perceived to be the cooler version of timeout. And then it’s, I don’t think it doesn’t exist. But in those days in a pre internet world, city limits was if you wanted to do anything gay, that’s where you fell apart from the Free Press, which I always found seems to always lag behind. Or even thought you had to specifically go to the gay paper pubs to get them but timeouts or city limits for listings, but also the contacts low. You know, they used to call them lonely hearts. And I met I met my first long term boyfriend through one of those.

K 13:40
Oh, wow. And so in the listings, you do just it’s just words, isn’t it? There’s no photos or anything, just words, no photo and your PO box number. And so what attracted you to his ad? always did he respond to you?

Joe Pop 13:52
He responded to his ad, and I kept it for years. And the words were, you know, gay man. I know not two years of his life. knowing

K 14:04
why even bothered Yes,

Joe Pop 14:06
I think that’s just the thought of being 30 in those days is quite overwhelming. I would have been 27 or 28 or something like that. I remember he was into China, it was like gay man into and then there was list this is a very typical thing into and they would list cultural things you like, seek similar and I can remember his would have invited for a note said Warhol. This is this is typical. It said Warhol, how it probably said something like Fassbinder, I’m just remembering him, you know, Fassbinder and Jean Genet, or, you know, sort of like arty, gay, Arty, gay sort of cultural things. Because he was very arty, gay cultural thing. And it would have he would have referenced music as well, it would have been like, oh, it would probably been ballet or something like that, because we often that is advert spoke Exactly. To me. Ironically, of course, we were totally different people, but our cultural interests were, in fact, our cultural shared interests. No held us together for many more years, our actual relationship did. So that’s so that’s what happened. Besides that, if you wanted to meet people you went out if you said that right very rarely. So if we’re talking about the black cab, I had a lot of sex from the black cat. But I would I don’t think I’ve very rarely went there to look for sex. It was always I was in a relationship where was an open relationship. And we also didn’t live together. So there was quite a lot of opportunities for me to have sex. But for me going out to the black cap, I don’t think I don’t think I can remember going there, you know, on the prowl with my thumb’s, my belt loops, but a lot less. It was always something that happened at the end of the evening. But also I had this thing, I’ve got this, I’ve got a memory of having a conversation with this friend of mine, which was the dignity in toast idea. And what it was was when he was staying late, because that’s what used to happen a lot at the blackcap is, you know what I was saying you would spend your time with your friends, we’d go downtown and got got into going downstairs to what happened downstairs. But at the end of the night, when everyone suddenly stopped smiling and chatting to their friends. And he runs into corners to look mean and moody. That was that point where were you too drunk drunk? Was that really I was too drunk. And there was a thing of like, it’s okay to just pick yourself up and go home and have toast. Gentlemen, you didn’t have to do. And that’s something that has actually done me quite good. It’s a case of like, Is everyone else too desperate? Or are you too desperate? Always? If it’s not right, it’s fine to go on.

K 16:31
And you talked before about Black Cap being a famous drag. What was your relationship with drag? What? Why did they ask anyway? Sorry,

Joe Pop 16:41
why did I like what what was I think of it? Yeah. In the 80s, in particular, and I’m talking at the tail end of this, I think to a certain extent, but not quite the same. They were right. Right now there’s a ton of drag where everyone’s going, Yeah, right. In my day, the drag was quite my day. This time. There were fewer drag queens, and they were thought they were professional entertainers.

K 17:03

Joe Pop 17:04
nearly all of them were basically comics and address. That’s a very traditional, you know, from the panto tradition. But they were cheerleaders for the gay scene. They were our pop stars. They were our own counterculture stars. And there was a few that were really big. The biggest ones were Lily savage who ruled the roost at the RVT I always remember Tuesday nights was this drag queen called Regina foam. If you go on YouTube, there’s put Regina Fong you’ll see her act she was she had all the patter, but she used to lip sync. And she used to do these little cut up, you know, things that are very prevalent now cut up tapes with bits of dialogue from adverts and famous lines from films and she would do these little three minute funny narrative things and but it was her repertoire. And people would shout in the audience for the ones that they wanted the one that was quite a lot of them involved. audience participation. That was one which was where we would all she would lead us all through singing along to Skippy the bush Pang, kangaroo. And we there was a dance that that you know, we would all do. And there were hand actions and things you could be in on it. You know, if you were a regular you could be part of it. So it felt it was hugely celebrated very, very little of her act seen her character while she was the last of the Romanovs and she ran away from the Winter Palace clutching a fabric there was some that was very rarely discussed. And the whole fact that she was in drag was not really part of what she did, though. Obviously, the cut ups of the characters in the dialogue was female character, you know, Joan Crawford, and suddenly the stroke to shake and vac advert and then Cilla Black, and then lines from something like the film classic films like black Narcissus or something like that. There was a bit which was from the film Thoroughly Modern Millie, and you know, there’s the bit where she does type writing. So she had that music, and everybody would put their hands up and play imaginary typewriter. It was hugely joyous, very skillful, and tribal. And it felt like it was something that when I had friends that came from abroad or from out of town, I would take them to see Regina Fong in the black cab talking to him for quite emotional about this and thinking about last time, and it was very uplifting and joyous. I’ll give you an example the end song every night. At the end, she would she’d have guests in the show or be talking about Shawn day this this black drag queen who in retrospect, I’m pretty sure was a trans woman. She was come on and she would she was a regular guest but there were other guests and come and do turns what have you. And then at the end, they would all come on stage and the same song which is called Tell me what he tell him what I said tell me what I said tell him what I say I can’t remember by Helen Shapiro which is a lovely Big booming 60s pop song, it was a traditional thing that everyone would rush or the performance come on stage, they would all lip sync to this record which had hand jive action. But there’s also a movement where I’ve explained this really badly where people would lean on each other people would get into if you can imagine, like, get into a conga line, or lead, there was a sad bit in the song and everyone would lean on each other’s shoulders, and then turn around and lean on the person behind.

K 20:28
Again, until being tired.

Joe Pop 20:29
It was sort of like a dramatic because the songs all about he left me or you know, whatever, whatever it is, people who know what I’m talking about, well, no, I’m talking about. But anyway, this record, tell me what he said, which is this big 60s song, I play it quite often at the end of my sets when I DJ, and if people who suddenly little groups and middle aged people will start reenacting this movement. And it was when I started DJing. For instance, I didn’t know what this song was called, I just knew that it was called I can remember took me a long time to Google to actually find out what it was because I remember the song, but it’s not a very well known song. When I found it, I was so thrilled. And like I said, when I DJ, I play it at the end of my sets. And it, it really means a lot to people. And that was that was just fantastic. And I’m sure that there’ll be an equivalent now that other people are doing. And there will be old pop songs that frame people’s experiences.

K 21:25
Is that I mean, yeah, that’s the incredible thing about music isn’t just that ability to transport.

Joe Pop 21:32
Yes. And that song. Now whenever I hear it, I’ve played it quite a lot. Now when I DJ so so the the, the, the effects of taking the shot? No, it doesn’t. But like I said, whenever I do my little DJ things, and I’ve played it to the end, and people suddenly come rushing up to you and say, Oh, my God, you know, or my friends, you know, the friends who I had at the time, who I still have now when I’m DJing at the retro bar, and I play you know this at the end and suddenly, you know, savion, Jonathan and Matthew all jump up and start running around doing it. It’s lovely. You know, that’s something that’s quite important to me. Regina was a huge, you know, they called the when they opened the outdoor garden upstairs, it was called the phone terrorists. And Regina phone who used to see quite often at the black cap. I remember seeing her walk she’s very tall, very grand bloke, walking out with some bloke and showing him around and she basically said yeah, the names after me. There was also another story, which I hope is true. And I think I saw a version of it, which was a lot of the big drag queens used to all meet up on a Monday because they’ve worked hard all weekend and they would all meet up on a Monday afternoon together at the black cap and all get paralytic really drunk. And I think I saw them I think I definitely saw the giant how to drag drunk at the black cap, but I don’t remember if she was at a table with other off duty drag queens. But apparently they would all gather on a Monday upstairs and all gets hammered with their friends. I don’t know if it was every Monday but you know, but it’s a good story. Anyway, so downstairs right? We would go downstairs we’ve had our hands damped to not pay the one pound 50 or whatever it was the music that was played there was always you know what you’d call commercial dance music what I’d call a disco remix of a top 40 pop here. Yeah. Not necessarily my real remit, but it’s you know, it’s what you expect and probably in a gay by like that. I’d be quite surprised if it wasn’t, you know, disappointed. It wasn’t um, I I’ve had some epiphanies You know, there are some great records you know, you make me feel by making material by Sylvester but also I’m very fond of things like those really simple dance records that are most like gay folk songs. You know, like this is the rhythm of the night. This is the rhythm of my life. It’s free to feel good. Yeah, you know, I think these are sort of 90s Yes, yeah, dance songs. Which I when you listen to them now I find them quite charming and they remind me of a certain time Ain’t nothing going on but the rent and Grace Jones records and you know, again, you know, these aren’t real I was much more into rock music and punk music but these records are of a time and a place and with great pleasure downstairs you know, we would go down and see I’m just trying to remember exactly besides Regina, we would just go down and rejoining was somebody who I made a point of going for and if if I remember rightly, it was on a Tuesday night, other nights was different. I remembers Sunday nights was always quite good either Sunday or Monday used to have cheap cheap drinks deals. And I remember that was a night when you go and got hammered. And that was when you ended up next to the off duty

K 24:37
drag queen was getting hammered as well.

Joe Pop 24:41
That was a lot of drinking. But these cheap drink nights were those words the nights when you ended up smoking that someone that come in from some old buns or something. I remember some of the performance that was one that I really liked. She’s a female cabaret singer called Kelly. Why Old Kelly and she was she’s still doing the gay scene now. And she’s one of the better word imagine Bonnie Tyler she has a very raspy Bonnie Tyler strong nightclub voice and she she was a hugely entertaining, she would come out and she would do I think she recorded things like disco versions of holding out for hero and things like that. And she’s a very traditional pub gay pub entertainer, anyway, and she’d had one night so I’m particularly thinking of this is my this is a story. piece. She had a night and I made a weekly night, a monthly night. And then she always had a guest singer, it would quite often be the focus of you know, the female vocalists to was, you know, dance records that would have a female vocalist, Female Vocalist would come along. I remember this young black woman standing there with a hands and a hip saying, okay, people, she said, I’m on my period and my waves falling out, but I’m going to do my best for you. But there’s one particular night was I think this is 94. Anyway, Pete Burns was coming to do a PA Oh, wow. Right. And now this is at a point where Pete burns had had the initial impact we’re dead or alive with that’s the way I like it. And even You spin me around like a record. And then he went away for a few years and in again, in a pre internet world and a pre celebrity obsessed world. We didn’t know.

K 26:19
Yeah, what just fell off the face.

Joe Pop 26:21
Yeah, it just me and my friends will talk about this event. So we all went to see what Pete Burns was like. And when we got there, the place was packed and it was full of similar people to myself similar age or people who wants to know people answers, but let’s go and see what this is for. So we’re there in the in in a very packed black cap. And what I remember was Pete burns arrived, you know, like half an hour before he’s due to go on stage. And he was very tall and was probably wearing stilettos was led through a crowd with his hand on the shoulder of somebody that I think a woman who might have been his life and he was led through the crowd and he had his head down in my mind I’ve got it he was like covered in the blank. It was quite that but he was he was led through the crowd and disappeared backstage but it was like you know they will bring in the monster that thing you know, whatever. And he came in and I think they tried to do it really low key but Artie for this apparition yeah through but we couldn’t really see so when the show started and Kelly comes out in her dm on a bus da and sings something like a disco remote make of something like Earth song by Mike Michael.

K 27:28
That’s crying out for a discovery man.

Joe Pop 27:30
It was it was quite insane. And then she’s had you know that now, you know, we often have here people stars coming stars coming up stars coming down. But tonight we have a legend and she introduced papers. And he came on stage bang, the lights came on. And he’d had all the surgery which we’d not seen before. He had his hair or his weight was like this long black hair with a clear patch of fringe. His face was for the piercings. I seem to remember. His arms were all covered in tattoos. And he was wearing what in my mind because it was definitely difficult to see through the crowd. But he was wearing like a silver 50s party dress. It was gender fuck of a high, you know, level at a point where I hadn’t really seen

K 28:12
Yes. And he

Joe Pop 28:13
came out live his energy is really punky the vocals which are very strong and you know, harsh in a way. It was incredible. It was overwhelming, not overwhelming in a good way. It was fantastic. He came out and did a couple of songs. I remember he was pulling muscle poses because I think and he had, he obviously did weight training because he had big muscle. So he was in this extraordinary drag, muscled and tattooed. It was like nothing I’d seen before. And it was just incredible. And he yelled, you know, a couple of songs. We were all like, pinned against the wall by his force by his energy. And that was fantastic. That was really quite jaw dropping. It was a space where I did some growing and some bonding. With some people. My memories are more about my friends, though, we obviously would chat with other people I remember about us being me and my friends. But it was a place of bonding for us. So I can remember being with my friends. It was a place where we really built I think we really strengthened the friendship. And it was good for that. I think we were all finding our way into the gay world how to be gay men. And we were all similarly interested, culturally the same sort of music and art and things like that, though, we’re all quite different as people and we took that as a starting point, you know, you’re interested in the same record as me, then we might have something in common. Though we’re all quite different people from very different backgrounds. We all we built a friendship that started off on the fact that we all like Siouxsie and the Banshees and that we were all gay, but we had enough to build on to them become good friends. I’m thinking about much love friends, who you know where I’m 50 a couple of us are mid 50s and the others early 50s We have known each other since about this time late 80s, early 90s

K 30:10
Did you ever go to the black cap and have photos or stories that you want to share? If you do, then please get in touch through any of my social media channels such as Instagram, or Facebook or Twitter. With the user handle k Anderson music, I’d love to have a conversation. And if you’d like to find out more about Joe, you are in luck, he co hosts a show on Shoreditch radio with DJ su Grande. And you can find previous episodes of the show listed@www.mixcloud.com forward slash su dash grant. La spaces is not only a podcast, but it is also a concept record. I have been working on songs and stories about different people and different queer spaces and how their lives intersect. And I’m going to be releasing those songs over the coming year. You can hear the first single from the set well groomed boys, which is also the theme song and the thing that’s playing underneath my talking right now on Spotify, or iTunes or any of the other online music platforms. If you enjoyed today’s episode and you want to hear more then please do subscribe. It would also make a huge difference if you have the time to share the podcast on your social media or to tell friends about it. Or even leave a review on the iTunes Store. My name is K Anderson and you have been listening to Lost Spaces