"May the various Arts Labs struggling toward the light around the country miraculously find some support in their areas. It seems that even as large a city as Birmingham cannot produce enough concerned individuals to generate a freedom castle." (One of John Peel's wishes for 1969, from his International Times column in the issue dated 1 January 1969)
"Letters from David Bowie scrounging money for building of, wait for it...the Beckenham Arts Lab. Reflections on Arts Labs generally, the limitless quantities of bullshit engendered therein and the effect of same - the deadening effect of same - on Eastern European music (incorporating the Silly Hat theory of advanced pop criticism" (from John Peel outlining his proposed "recollections of an English Gentleman" to his literary agent Cat Ledger in 1992. Reproduced in Margrave of the Marshes, p.402)
The Arts Lab movement was a feature of Britain's alternative, hippy-influenced culture of the late 1960s. It began with the opening of the London Arts Lab in 1967 under the leadership of the American Jim Haynes, who had made his name in Edinburgh as the founder of the Traverse Theatre and the Paperback Bookshop, both of which became centres for a youthful artistic avant-garde in the staid Scottish capital. The London Arts Lab was less successful, descending into chaos and closing after two years, but because "the arts" in most provincial British towns and cities were either non-existent or dominated by middle-aged supporters of traditional high culture, the idea of less formal "non-institutions", open to whoever wished to get involved, caught on rapidly with readers of IT and listeners to Peel's programmes. In late 1969 International Times was able to devote a full page to listing Arts Labs around the country (the Beckenham Arts Lab being represented by David Bowie's phone number). Most of them were short-lived, but ironically it was the Birmingham Arts Lab, whose plight Peel mentioned in the above quote from IT, which turned out to be one of the longest-lived and most influential of all; it was celebrated in an exhibition in 2013.
Links to Peel
The London Arts Laboratory opened, in Drury Lane, shortly after Peel had returned to onshore life following the closedown of Radio London. It was not primarily a music venue - its founders were interested in literature, theatre, film and the visual arts - but its openness to experimental work corresponded to his own wish of the time to encourage more self-expression and communication. In Margrave of the Marshes (pp. 273-4) Sheila Ravenscroft quotes from a diary entry by Peel, dated 20 October 1967, in which he describes a visit to the Arts Lab and his "usual pangs of inferiority....In the presence of so many talented, creative and constructive people on the underground scene I feel that I'm regarded as something of a hanger-on and bore...." .
The Arts Lab did attract John Lennon and Yoko One, as well as David Bowie (who used it as a rehearsal space), but developed a reputation for events which were often condemned as either boring or off-puttingly confrontational. (It also became known as a place where people could stay overnight free of charge, attracting not only people who had missed the last bus or tube home, but the freeloaders, dossers and drug casualties who by 1969 were becoming a more visible element of London's hippy scene.) Peel's main connection with the Arts Lab was through Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, the "communal performance art collective" whom he championed and signed to Dandelion Records, before becoming disillusioned with them in his later years; they played a series of gigs there in late 1968.
The DJ had also tried to help the Birmingham Arts Lab by mentioning it on-air, as well as in his IT column, but found himself having to apologise on a November 1968 Top Gear to a group of students who had written him an angry letter, after he had accused the city's students of apathy due to their lack of support for the local Arts Lab. While bands such as Love Sculpture, The Nice and Family performed at the venue in 1968, rock music was regarded as a source of funds rather than an integral part of Arts Lab culture.
As he mentioned in his autobiography, Peel was in contact with David Bowie in 1969 when the singer was running the Beckenham Arts Lab. Interviewed by Melody Maker, Bowie claimed, "I think it's the best in the country. There isn't one pseud involved. All the people are real - like labourers or bank clerks...Arts labs generally have such a bad reputation as pseud places...I think the arts lab movement is extremely important, and should take over from the youth club concept as a social service...." In the same year Bowie told International Times how committed he was to the project: "If you want a comparison try putting our Arts Lab and the conventional theatre side by side and see what you get. Here we are in Beckenham with a group of people creating their own momentum without the slightest concerns for attitudes, tradition or pre-ordained moralities...it's alive, healthy and new and it means more to me than anything else".
Dave Cousins of the Strawbs was also involved with an Arts Lab, in Hounslow, but more experimental or eccentric artists such as Ivor Cutler and Lol Coxhill were a better fit than rock bands in most Arts Labs. As the 1970s developed, Peel lost interest in the Arts Lab world of self-styled "freaks" - avant-garde theatre groups, performance artists, minor poets and the like. Much later, influenced perhaps by his own experiences with Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (as described by Sheila Ravenscroft in Margrave Of The Marshes [ref]) he condemned Arts Labs in strong terms. Nevertheless, as David Bowie had hoped, some Arts Labs did contribute to a more open and less conventional approach to the arts in Britain's regional arts centres - an example of which is the John Peel Centre For The Creative Arts..