Wow!! was John “Hoppy” Hopkins’ response to any number of things: an idea, a record, a film, a poster, a joke, a poem, a drug, a girl…. And his “Wow!” did not simply echo the ubiquitous “far out” of San Francisco hippies; his delight in the world was genuine, committed, astute and infectious.
Hoppy, who has died, aged 77, was co-founder of International Times, the UFO Club and the London Free School. During the intense two-year heyday of London’s fertile and diverse counterculture, he was the only true leader the movement ever had.
John Hopkins was born in 1937 in Slough; his father was a naval engineer, who designed turbines for large vessels. After attending Felsted School, he took a General Science degree at Cambridge, receiving his MA in 1958. His degree was undistinguished; as Hoppy put it, he discovered sex, drugs and jazz at Cambridge and pursued all three with great diligence. After graduation he worked as a lab technician for the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, but lost his security clearance after a jaunt to Moscow for a Communist youth festival.
In 1960, he moved to London and became a photographer. I first encountered him backstage at the 1964 ‘Blues and Gospel Caravan’ photographing Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe for Melody Maker. His seldom-shown work is among the most evocative of the era, including brilliantly insightful shots of Beatles and Stones, John Lee Hooker and Thelonious Monk as well as a colourful early-‘60s underbelly of tattoo parlours, bikers, fetishists and derelict architecture. (There is a book of them: “From the Hip”, Damiani Press 2008 – http://hoppyx.com/)
In the summer of 1965, Hoppy joined with Barry Miles (future biographer of Ginsberg and Burroughs) and poet Michael Horovitz to organize the Albert Hall Poetry Olympics, featuring the American trio Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso, as well as Brits Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue and Horovitz; that night, the standing-room-only audience recognized themselves as a counter-culture for the first time. Two months later, Hoppy started the first of a life-long series of projects to democratize communication and information. The Notting-Hill-based London Free School achieved few of these goals, but its money-raising events gave Pink Floyd their start and his inspired collaboration with the local West Indian community brought about the first annual Notting Hill Carnival.
In October of 1966, he and Barry Miles published the first issue of International Times, Europe’s first underground paper. (By the end of 1967, there would be almost 100 of them.) The IT launch party at the Roundhouse – with music by Pink Floyd and Soft Machine – inspired Hoppy and me to open the UFO Club in a West End dance hall. Every Friday, Hoppy would mount a scaffolding at the back of the club, play records, make gnomic announcements, show films, project light shows and imbue those nights of music, theatre and dance with an unforgettable atmosphere. Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Arthur Brown, Procul Harum, Tomorrow, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Fairport Convention are among the many bands for whom a UFO appearance helped launch a successful career.
In response to a March police raid on the IT offices, Hoppy mounted a “14-Hour Technicolor Dream” at Alexandra Palace; Peter Whitehead’s film “Let’s All Make Love In London” shows a dazed John Lennon wandering in the huge crowd, transfixed by Yoko Ono cutting a paper dress off a girl as Pink Floyd greeted the North London sunrise.
Revolutions are, almost by definition, factional, but during those two golden years from June ’65 to June ‘67, the working-class anarchists, vaguely aristocratic bohemians, musicians, crusaders, poets, dropouts and psychotropic adventurers were united in their respect and affection for Hoppy. Seemingly irreconcilable differences were bridged again and again by our ever-positive leader. He had a scientist’s suspicion of waffle or cant, forcing us to confront the flaws and contradictions in our ideas and actions, but always in the most positive and supportive manner. All craved the reward of a “Wow” from Hoppy.
That he was seen as leader of this amorphous movement espousing recreational drug-taking, political protest, sexual liberation and “obscene” literature inevitably led to his downfall. Hoppy’s flat was raided and a small amount of hashish found. At his trial, he attacked the prohibition on drugs and, having been branded a “menace to society” by the judge, was handed a nine-month sentence. Outrage at the sentence inspired ubiquitous Free Hoppy graffiti as well as a full-page celebrity protest in The Times, paid for by Paul McCartney. Without Hoppy, UFO lost its way and closed by October; the scene he had inspired was reduced in his absence by internal bickering, police harassment and better-funded competition.
Though prison robbed him of his energy for leadership, the following decades saw Hoppy persevere with his ideals. Inspired by the Paris events of May ’68, he and Miles converted IT into a workers cooperative. With his partner, Sue Hall, he formed Fantasy Factory, an offline editing facility that revolutionized affordable low-tech video editing, bringing it within reach of community activists and independent directors. UNESCO funded Fantasy Factory’s educational package and distributed it widely in the developing world. For Hoppy, culture was always seen in the context of politics and vice-versa.
Always eager for scientific challenges, a chance meeting in 1990 led to Hoppy designing and constructing a greenhouse for horticultural research at the University of Westminster. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2007, he never lost his curiosity or his charm, meeting a new partner for his final years at a gathering of Parkinson’s sufferers. In his final months, his speech and movement severely hindered by disease, he was still able to open wide his brightest eye and say ‘Wow!’
John “Hoppy” Hopkins, born 15 August, 1937, died 30 January, 2015.
With you, loyal mailing list readers, I can be less restrained. I have no idea what my life might have been like had Hoppy not turned up that afternoon at Fairfield Halls Croydon to snap those pix for Melody Maker. I liked him immediately and asked if he was coming to the show that night. He had other plans, but eagerly accepted a pair of comps for the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Apollo) show the following week.
Afterwards, he gave me his phone number and address and, as I recall, we shared a joint in the alley outside the stage door. When I returned to London at the end of the Blues and Gospel Caravan tour (for which I was tour manager), a folk club organizer offered me a slab of hashish at a bargain price. It was far too large for my modest level of consumption, so I rang Hoppy. He jumped in a cab and the three of us rode round a Soho block while Hoppy sniffed and pinched and bargained until the deal was done. I went back to his flat to sample the bounty and a friendship was forged. (Curious to recall our shared assumption that a London cabbie in 1964 wouldn’t have the faintest idea what we were up to…)
From late April until the beginning of August, I rented cheap rooms, or slept on floors and sofas waiting to go back on jazz promoter George Wein’s payroll in Paris on August 1. I made three friends during those first weeks in London: Roy Guest, who was the Caravan’s liaison for the British promoter; Nigel Waymouth, a blues fan who came backstage at that same Hammersmith Odeon concert; and Hoppy. My entire life in London since then can be traced to the headwaters of those three encounters: Roy introduced me to the folk scene and all of his musical friends, Nigel turned out to be brilliant artist and designer who started Granny Takes A Trip and designed the UFO posters and Hoppy turned out to be… well, Hoppy.
That summer, he was living in a large flat on Westbourne Terrace; Paddington was unfashionable then and the rent was nothing. For a month or so, I slept on his sofa, watched, followed and learned: back-doubles around London, the best curries, the best fry-ups, how to develop and print black and white film, how to talk to girls, how to listen to the Ayler Brothers, how to roll a British joint. Hoppy was always up for it, always full of energy, always positive, always searching, questioning. And it was no free-ride; I was expected to run errands, drop off film, make excuses to stood-up girls… When I ran out of money, he loaned me £10, a large sum in those days.
My first attempt at pay-back came in September when I got him a press pass to the Berlin Jazz Festival. He took fantastic photos (many still for sale, or viewable in From The Hip) of Miles, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Clarke… I got him another pass to the Newport Jazz Festival in July ’65, where he told me about the big poetry reading at the Albert Hall he’d helped organize a few weeks earlier. I didn’t grasp its significance until I moved back to London in November. I rang Hoppy as soon as I arrived and he invited me to a meeting of the London Free School the following night. Everything seemed to have changed; Hoppy was no longer taking pictures, he was organizing. Leaflets were printed, a hall was rented, West London locals – Trinidadians, Irish, Ukrainians, students on the dole – were targeted as beneficiaries. The idea was to share our privileged knowledge with the disenfranchised – a theme that would run throughout Hoppy’s life.
The next two years are a vivid blur: Pink Floyd gigs to raise money, the IT launch at the Roundhouse, the UFO Club every Friday in an Irish dance hall in Tottenham Court Rd, the Technicolor Dream, borrowing a 16mm projector every Friday from Yoko Ono and returning it through a door left open to the street each Saturday dawn, police busting people in the queue, getting advice from Michael X about how to confront authority…. I’m not sure how I discovered that Hoppy was a terrific blues pianist, but he performed expertly when I hired him for Incredible String Band and Purple Gang recording sessions. (The Mad Hatter’s Song and Bootleg Whiskey, respectively.)
When Hoppy went down in June, the air went out of everything. We were already under siege – what had been a colourful psychedelic sidebar to “Swinging London” in the autumn of ‘66, had become a threat to the stability of society by the spring of ‘67, as the Beatles told of taking acid and then released LSD’s slickest advert, Sgt Pepper; the police colluded with the News of the World to bust the Stones. By the time Hoppy was released in January, our world had changed out of all recognition. I was busy in the studio and the “underground” was completely fragmented. Hoppy went into what he later confessed was his ‘Maoist’ period, sometimes even provoking factionalism rather than healing it. The warmth never went from our encounters, but throughout the 70s and 80s, they were sparse.
In the ‘90s and ‘00ies, I saw more of him; I found there were things I could do for him – help him move a couple of times, for example. He ended up in a great 3-room ‘sheltered accommodation’ in Islington, with a garden at the back. I would sometimes explain to American friends why I can’t imagine living in the US; would someone like Hoppy, who had been so central to the culture but who never profited from his efforts, have been taken care of that way in America? (Will Britain still be like that if the Tories win in May…?)
As his health deteriorated, I saw more and more of him. In the hospital a few days before he died, though his mouth was unable to form words, his good eye was wide and alert as I talked of how he’d changed my life and changed the life of this country. He moved his head up and down; for all his gentle humility, Hoppy knew who he was and what he’d accomplished.