The radical 1960s English group King Mob called themselves the ‘gangsters of the new freedom’, and combined hard-edged politics with the disruptive potential of Dada. Kunzru looks back at their world after sifting through their archive, which has recently been acquired by Tate.
At least two generations of London commuters knew about the radical group King Mob, even if they didn’t know they knew them. For many years, as the Hammersmith and City line tube passed under the Westway near Royal Oak station, a mocking message confronted travellers: SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINER [sic] – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – TV – SLEEP – TUBE – WORK – HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE – ONE IN TEN GO MAD – ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP.
The message, painted in huge letters on a concrete barrier wall, survived into the early 1990s, before disappearing in one of the waves of regeneration that have transformed tracts of the city into a globalised consumer playground. The radicals responsible took their name from another piece of graffiti, which appeared during the Gordon Riots of 1780. On a wall of the destroyed Newgate prison some proletarian wit daubed a sort of signature, attributing the work to ‘His Majesty King Mob’. The 1960s King Mob centred around brothers David and Stuart Wise, who had attended art school in Newcastle, developing an interest in the disruptive anti-art potential of Dada and Surrealism and a hard-edged politics partly derived from nineteenth-century Russian Nihilism. In texts such as Pisarev’s The Destruction of Aesthetics, they found fundamental questions being asked about value, politics and the (lack of ) social function of art.
In 1967 the Wise brothers found themselves in London, in the orbit of the English section of the Situationist International. The Situationist picture of the consumer society as a giant machine for producing pacifying spectacle chimed with their own analysis, and SI members such as Chris Gray and Don N. Smith were drawn into King Mob, a name used to sign posters, texts and actions, all aimed at disrupting the hypnotic effects of the spectacular social order. Other associates in the Notting Hill underground included John Barker, later to serve a prison sentence for Angry Brigade bombings, and Charles Radcliffe, later part of Howard Mark’s cannabis smuggling operation. As David Wise subsequently wrote, the group was a ‘spontaneous coming together… sheer passion and the desire to live a life free of money (the intensified invasion of exchange) and the social relations of commodity production was the very essence of what we were about’.
King Mob actions were witty, carnivalesque and confrontational. In 1968 members, dressed in (among other things) gorilla suits and pantomime horse outfits, led a crowd that tore down the high fences surrounding Powis Square gardens in Notting Hill, reopening the place as a playground for local children. They sneaked their own float into the Notting Hill Carnival, and ran riot in Selfridges department store. Their publications often took the form of détourné pop-cultural images, such as the poster Luddites 69, in which Andy Capp, the stereotypical northern working-class cartoon character, shoots policemen, below a text reproduced from a nineteenth-century Luddite broadside: ‘I ham going to informe you that theers six thousand me cuming to you sooon and then we will goe and blow up all about hus, labring peple cant stand it no longer…’ Elsewhere, The Beano’s Bash Street Kids rag their teacher, who asks: ‘What do you demand in pitting the power of everyday life against hierarchical power?’ ‘Simple,’ respond the kids, ‘we demand everything, teacher!’
The other big influence on King Mob’s style and attitude was the floating population of New York’s Lower East Side anarchists centred on Ben Morea, publisher of agitprop journal Black Mask, friend of would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas and founder and animating spirit of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker!, a self-styled ‘street gang with an analysis’. Morea’s Motherfuckers declared war on New York’s artistic elite, picketing MoMA and dumping trash on the steps of the Lincoln Center, all in the spirit of ‘cultural exchange’ – offering ‘garbage for garbage’. They revelled in the darkest and angriest aspects of the counterculture, repelling the more peace-and-love-minded underground types. ‘We are the ultimate Horror Show,’ read one of their communiqués, ‘Hideous Hair & Dangerous Drugs… Armed Love striking terror into the vacant hearts of the plastic Mother & pig-faced Father.’ In the mid 1960s the Wises spent time with Morea, co-signing at least one Motherfucker statement. The group’s wildness and willingness to take personal risks (during a 1967 anti-war rally, they broke into the Pentagon, and were beaten to a pulp) fed into King Mob’s confrontational street politics, worlds away from the Parisian avant-gardism of the SI. Indeed, it was the British Situationists’ support for Morea in a row with Raoul Vaneigem that led to their formal expulsion from the SI. Unlike the Parisian intellectuals, the Motherfuckers combined direct action with social activism, feeding the homeless, housing teenage runaways and standing up for the Lower East Side community against the notorious Ninth Precinct police.
Like the Motherfuckers, King Mob developed a healthy suspicion of the pretensions of many self-styled radicals. Terming themselves ‘gangsters of the new freedom’, they were a chaotic and often unwelcome presence at various nominally revolutionary events. During the Hornsey College of Art occupation, they were thrown out for mocking the ‘abysmal’ quality of the debates. At the LSE they distributed posters and leaflets encouraging occupying students to go further in their actions, material which was hurriedly suppressed by ‘odiously puritanical” student leaders who wanted to maintain the decorum of their protest. As revolutionary bullshit detectors and antiart activists, King Mob despised one thing above all – culture, ‘the commodity which helps sell all the others’. To them Godard was ‘just another bloody Beatle’, and the elite of cultural consumers who looked to the avant-garde or the political underground for shock or novelty were just as duped by the spectacle as any mass-media-watching suburbanite. And that means you, readers of Tate Etc. One thing is certain. King Mob never wanted to find themselves here, in the house rag of cultural consumption, let alone locked away in Tate’s permanent collection. But these posters and magazines are just detritus, the record of past struggles. In the present day, the real action is elsewhere.