I
Many of the great blues artists, idolised by rock musicians, were itinerant street performers - people like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly (Hudie Leadbetter) - and other less-known but equally authentic bluesmen like Honey Boy Edwards have spoken of performing in public places such as railway station ticket halls. So how do we get from that to the view held throughout the music business that street performing or busking is something for beginners?

Well, let's get into a time-machine and set the dial for New Orleans, somewhere around 1900.

There's a bunch of young Creole kids playing music on a street corner in Storyville, the red-light district. One's called Charly Stalebread Lecombe, who plays a fiddle made from a cigar-box; next to him there's Cajun on the harmonica; then there's Warm Gravy, Whisky and Monk.. one sings through a stove pipe and one plays the comb.. It seems they call themselves the Spasm Band, and if we can look into the future we'll see that Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton idolized these guys and boasted that they knew them back in New Orleans.

There's a big crowd around them. Some guy comes rushing up to them and shouts out "Hey Stalebread, have you heard what's happening at the Haymarket Dance-hall down on Customhouse and Dauphine - Jack Robinson the boss has started a band there calling themselves the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band and their whole act is the same as yours!" The guys say "We're busy now, we'll look into it later, man", and carry on busking.

After finishing their performance they walk up to the Haymarket Dance-hall, and see the posters themselves, and probably hear some of the music, the whole thing stolen from them. They're furious. If we stay around, we'll see some time later the real Spasm Band turn up again with their pockets full of stones and bricks outside Jack Robinson's theatre. The violence and protest that ensues is to lead Jack Robinson later to change the name of his band on the posters to the Razzy Dazzy Jazzy Band ... anyway, let's get back to the time-machine before the police turn up...

We arrive in 1978. Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy are busking outside the London Experience in Coventry Street, just off Leicester Square, London. They've given up their street poetry a few months previously - selling copies of their poems in the streets, railway stations and tube platforms - and their song "It's a Crime to play Music in the Streets" is popular with a lot of kids that walk by dressed in various fashions of the time - that is, when Bongo and Extremely are not being hauled off by the police for singing their song and marched off to Vine Street police station.

Fed up with the arrests and court appearances they flee the country and spend eight years homeless, running round Europe and the Balkans, and in doing so evolve their theory of Situation Art. In the early eighties, on visits back to London, they fight court cases against various injustices regarding their public place performances, and become famous for this. They stand alone; most people think they're crazy. As the years pass they note that at every turn of their campaign, when they get some publicity, some glamour rock-group or folk-artist with massive financial backing appears with a new commercial recording and a promotional photo - and when videos come in there'll be a scene in the video - showing the artist concerned apparently busking or performing situation art in a public place. The list of names is long, and this phenomenon of stolen street-credibility exists all over the western world where there is pop and rock music - not just in London.

II
In their periods on the continent, Bongo and Extremely have got away with performing in a number of public place situations, apparently without problems. But from the authorities' side, this is more by default than intention; because when the nineties come, the Ordnungs Amt turn their pitches in Germany into a bureaucratic nightmare and eventually a forbidden fruit, and the local governments in Belgium and Holland settle on their pitches and activate dormant licensing powers in a campaign to stamp out itinerant performers.

Meanwhile in Britain something new is happening (or maybe it's not so new). Licensing schemes for buskers are springing up all over the place; repression by the authorities has turned into pressure to be a member of this or that licensing scheme. Is this in answer to Bongo and Extremely's well-publicised legal and political campaign? Probably not. Because the resulting schemes fit too neatly into a pattern of events that is all too familiar, in which the glamour artists are on top of rock and pop culture, and public place performers are kept underneath, at the bottom of the hierarchy. Police and now "community officer" repression and auditions act as very good tools for this purpose. It has become much easier to totally repress unlicensed and free performers; outspoken performers have been tied up by "anti social behaviour orders" (asbo's) banning them from the tube altogether, and an eccentric young performer who bizarrely played traffic cones around London in various places is also "asbo'd" and jailed. But wait a minute didn't the New Orleans Spasm Band play improvised instruments, like a stove pipe,a comb,a cigar box, and the kazoo..? And did that not inspire great and successful jazz musicians like Red McKenzie and his Mound City Blue Blowers..?

In particular, the licensing scheme on the Underground (initially sponsored by Carling Beer, but taken over by the Mayor's office in January 2007) has a very familiar flavour about it. A commercially- backed rock group performed at the launch of the licensing scheme, on their way to having a new album massively promoted all over the walls of the underground system. The buskers themselves participating in the scheme were forced to advertise a beer company free of charge, while rumours had it that the underground company was paid over half a million pounds by the sponsor for the scheme. And an intensified persecution is going on against those who perform on underground property who don't have the licence.

Community police officers and security guards make sure that the interactive street poetry that Bongo and Extremely used to live from is now unavailable; and the railway station concourses and tube platforms and the streets where the poets used to perform and distribute their poems are no longer lit up by those interactive performances of street poetry. Poem posters are now stuck on the underground train walls free of charge in a non-interactive and dull way, and called "Poems on the Underground".

Ethnic cleansing of street-art seems to have two symptoms - the actual persecution on the ground, and the stealing of the image and persona of the performer for use as an advertising tool for non-interactive, glamourised copyists.

It is a crime against art and artistic freedom which as yet has gone unpunished - because destroying an individual's whole persona and being in society is a way of effectively killing them; and doing it en masse is cultural genocide. There will only be justice when the perpetrators of it are brought to account over it/