Crystal Palace : From Safety To Where…?

“It’s weird green thing”. I appeared sceptical at an associate’s description of seeing the Crystal Palace half pipe for the first time.

Having spent the initial post-boom years simply skating Woolwich (occasionally venturing as far as Romford or Fordham Park in New Cross) Shane O’Brien and myself had no visual image of what a flat-bottomed half pipe was.

It was 1981 and a very turbulent year for pop culture. We had a Thatcher-led government, home computers were just starting to become a thing (via the basic abilities of the Sinclair ZX81) and we were moving through an interesting musical period for the initial post-punk years.

I had a particular interest in the bands that Liverpool was producing during these years. This included the intelligent electropop of OMD as well as the broody guitar tunes of Echo And The Bunnymen. At the same time, I’d had an eye on Manchester’s musical legacy, particularly the evocative landscape of sound that Joy Division offered up.

Meanwhile, we were contemplating the “weird green thing” and the possibilities that it offered for the future. We’d enjoyed our own unique bubble scene in Woolwich, but perhaps it was time to see what was going on in the wider world of skateboarding.

Viewing Crystal Palace for the first time was an intimidating experience. Having little experience of vert, this was the first time that we’d been exposed to the speed and visually impressive collection of tricks that the contemporary skater had to offer. Seeing high airs and inverts up close was a change of gear for people whose greatest achievement had been to carve crude concrete bowls.
It was clearly time to catch up, but where to begin? We must have looked hilarious with skate gear that looked like it had just walked off the ark. Plus, we had no concept of the techniques required to skate a half pipe. We were the lost tribe peeking out from the jungle growth and being amazed at basic things like fakies.

It was time for some badly needed retail therapy. This was solved by the discovery of Alpine Action’s Notting Hill shop, a venue dedicated to both skating as well as the emerging world of BMX – a location which offered up an Aladdin’s Cave of wonderful things. Imagine us, a pair of retro idiots, being confronted by a wall of decks in every conceivable colour and texture. Glass cabinets tempted you with dazzling displays of wheels, like a cabinet at Tiffany & Co. Meanwhile, the familiar and aromatic smell of griptape wafted through the shop.

There was something particularly comfortable about the atmosphere at Alpine. The staff were usually chatty and also happy for you to use the shop facilities if you needed to fix a board. So this was a regular port of call for Shane and myself, even if our wallets couldn’t afford to buy much.
We were blissfully unaware that Derek, who was part of Alpine’s staff at the time, had what is best described as a changeable personality at times. One day, while casually discussing a pic of American BMXers, Shane made the error of offering up a comparison. “I’ve seen better in Romford” said Shane. Derek considered this comment for a moment. His brain processed the facts carefully before he issued a prompt response: “No you haven’t”.

An impasse then. All attention turned to Shane in hopes of a diplomatic or witty retort. “BMX is kid’s stuff” the young Mr O’Brien concluded.

At this juncture, I felt it wise to take two steps back as Derek proceeded to fill the air with an interesting selection of invective ending with Shane being chased out of the shop. “I could knock spots off you at skateboarding!!” was Derek’s final comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, I was trying to pretend not to have a dog in that particular race by staring intently at the decks on the wall. I was particularly struck by the unusual metallic green of Mike McGill’s fighter plane design. Ignorant of the differences between board shapes and weights, I was drawn in more to the dynamic lines and bold design of the logo. At this stage I had no idea who Mike McGill was and was largely ignorant of the contemporary pro scene in the US.

But in 1982 we were going to get our first exposure to the talents of the US skaters when both Mike McGill and Steve Caballero did a brief tour of the UK in the summer. This stopover had been organised by the Scottish Skateboard Association who had somehow managed to convince the US pair to come to our shores from their tenure at the Eurocana Summer Camp in Sweden.

Caballero pays the Palace a visit.
Caballero pays the Palace a visit.

Crystal Palace was, of course, an obvious point of call on this UK visit. It also attracted a degree of media interest – as well as a large influx of curious skaters eager to see their heroes in the flesh for the first time. It’s interesting to note that this was all long before the high profile of the Bones Brigade videos were to hit – and also two years away from McGill pulling off the McTwist.

Palace saw a busy skate session throughout the course of the day. McGill and Caballero were on track to arrive in the early evening and there was a definite change of atmosphere once they rocked up. An impromptu jam session followed with the UK riders trying to keep pace, but once the US pair warmed up it was obvious they were in a different league altogether.

Both pulled off increasingly lofty airs as part of a series of smooth linked runs with tricks to match. Steve also threw in his signature move – the Caballerial. Considering the ollie was only just becoming part of the arsenal of a select few skaters in the UK, to see someone effortlessly throw a 360-degree version was impressive stuff.

I managed to shoot some photos at the time and if you squint carefully you might just be able to make out a vague blur that resembles Caballero.
Crystal Palace was also the venue of choice for the 1982 Euroskate – the annual competition that pitted the best of the UK skaters against the best of Europe in a wide variety of disciplines, including long jump and slalom.

This marked the first time that I’d witnessed competition-level skating in the new era. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the press and spectator interest. Not too shabby for something which had “died out years ago” as some wags would have it.

The vert contest offered up the opportunity to see the likes of Claus Grabke battling against Danny Webster. The UK had a good share of talents at the time, but Danny was seen to have a particular skillset that placed him in a league of his own. Unfortunately Claus had managed to injure himself over the weekend and Danny managed to achieve the coveted first place.

The Euroskate also marked my growing interest in design with the visually dynamic Euroskate T-shirt. The design, which was a stylised board bloodily entering your back, had a definite pop art influence.

Of course at this age I had all the art knowledge and experience of a fired brick and wouldn’t really appreciate it all until much later. Despite this, I had an obsession to over-analyse and look for meaning in everything. I’d spend hours listening to the likes of Joy Division, trying to discern meaning – as if studying chicken entrails for knowledge of the future.

“Through childlike ways, rebellion and crime
To reach this point and retreat back again
The broken hearts, all the wheels that are turned
The memory’s scarred and the vision is blurred”

Well wheels were certainly turning and it was time for the likes of Shane and myself to try and look the part of skaters, even if we currently looked like museum exhibits. I’d upgraded to a Kryptonics Steve Alba deck, Indy 169s and Bones wheels at this point. Shane, meanwhile, was rocking a Sims Doug DeMontmercy with Indys and Cubics.

It was time to start taking skateboarding seriously – and that meant tackling the walls of that weird green thing at Crystal Palace…

For more on Crystal Palace we recommend the superb Caught In The Crossfire article which interviews many of the Palace regulars of the time.