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Putting music on the Map

Chris Townsend, Map's founder

Chris Townsend, Map’s founder

The spirit of punk is alive and kicking in a quiet corner of Kentish Town, north London. Part studio, part record label, part performance space, MAP has become a launch pad for aspiring artistes for more than 20 years, including one Niomi Arleen McLean-Daley, the future Ms Dynamite.

For founder Chris Townsend, it embraces the do-it-yourself approach to music that he encountered during the glory days of punk rock when he travelled the world providing the merchandise for legendary bands like the Clash and the Jam.

“Punk represented a revulsion against the music establishment and set out to do things on its own terms,” he explains. “Similarly, MAP demonstrates that musicians still have the power and freedom to develop their careers without having to be signed to big record companies. We aim to promote original talent in every aspect, from providing a recording studio to designing record sleeves, as a way of guiding them to the next level.”

MAP stands for music, art and production but its Grafton Road base, a tall corner house in a bijou patchwork of Victorian streets, reveals a whole lot more, with a cafe on the ground floor and a small auditorium upstairs for live gigs and theatre.

This is another declaration of independence from Chris. “I was brought up in Camden and community means a lot to me. But over the years I’ve seen how the conglomerates have decimated high streets and broken up communities. Our vision is to bring people together around wholesome food and good entertainment – we really need more small projects like this to restore the balance. ”

Judging by the number of people in the cafe as we chat over a cup of coffee, it appears to be working. Original paintings adorn the walls, books and children’s toys are stacked on shelves and jazz music plays softly through the speakers, all adding to the laid back feel of the place, much like the character of Chris himself.

An early lover of blues and reggae, it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up in the music business. His classmate at Hampstead School was Madness keyboardist and songwriter Mike Barson, while he knocked around with John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, while studying at the former Kingsway Princeton College in King’s Cross. As the punk counter culture descended on Camden Market, he absorbed its full force just by hanging around. He was hooked.

“London looked so grey and horrible. Suddenly there was all this colour and energy and you just wanted to be part of it. Once you were, it was exhilarating. We really thought we could change the world,” he laughs.

He got a job with top music promoter Adrian Hopkins printing T-shirts. After mastering the silk screening technique he branched out to form Fifth Column in 1977 in a workshop above Kentish Town Tube. It has been responsible for classic designs of the punk era, including Clash’s ‘kamikaze’ motif for their 1979 US tour bearing a picture of Pearl Harbour against the Japanese flag  that has now become a collector’s item.

For Chris, son of the eminent sociologist Peter Townsend, the Clash best represented the raw energy and rebelliousness of punk, which translated into a prolific output of politically  charged songs like White Riot.  “Life was getting tougher for ordinary people and there were a lot of political things going on like strikes and the NF. The Clash would do a concert and then go on an anti-racist march – it was not just about music.”

All this threw up an alliance between punk and fellow musical outsiders, reggae, which became a phenomenon in itself. “It was a strange sort of camaraderie but it worked,” recalls Chris, who merchandised for reggae bands as well, providing the ‘Conquering Lion of Judah’ stage backdrop for Dennis Brown’s 1977 UK tour.

A good talker, he is full of stories about some of the names he worked with back in the day, Joe Strummer, Don Letts, Ranking Miss P, Paul Weller… But all good things come to an end. Punk “transgressed”, he says, to be taken over by the frills and froth of the ‘new romantics’ like Boy George.

Chris saw the writing on the wall. In 1989 he sold Fifth Column to begin MAP, both as a studio and an outlet for street wear. In the last 10 years the music arm of the business has taken centre stage and among those to pass through its doors have been Adamski, the Ordinary Boys, and  Ms Dynamite, who laid down her first demo tracks there before going to the US to make her debut album.  Recent signings include reggae singer Barry Ford, the voice and face on the TK Maxx ad on TV.

Meanwhile, MAP’s events programme is being expanded to include poetry, film and comedy, while its reputation for good food won it the contract to do the catering during the filming of Rihanna’s Styled to Rock series on Sky TV last year.

Chris is pleased with MAP’s achievements, but he is a creature of his times and something is missing. “The industry is depressingly dominated by musicians from the past and we’re still waiting for the next big thing,” he says wistfully. “Then again, no one anticipated punk and I’m sure something will  come along to surprise us all. I hope that MAP is a part of that.”

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