Destination Docklands: The Story Of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1988 London Spectacle

On October 10th thirty years ago, London witnessed one of the most remarkable and intriguing cultural events of its modern history. A concert which used massive buildings as a stage-set, relentless fireworks that could be seen across the city, an event which nearly didn’t happen at all due to legal and political fights and which all resulted in huge debt and financial settlements in the courts. Throw into the mix the most 1980s characters possible, from Princess Diana to Jeremy Beadle to Robert Maxwell, torrential rain nearly scuppering the whole thing and a connection to the largest neoliberal construction project the city has ever seen and you have an enticing mix of spectacle, capital, media and drama.

This is an edited extract from Will Jennings Jean Michel Jarman: The Last of Docklands, in Regeneration Songs: Sounds of Investment and Loss from East London.

Millennium Mills, courtesy @ Will Jennings

A great hulk of industry stands proud in the Royal Docks, a solid white monolith which seems to relish looking across at the flimsily engineered frame of ExCel Arena across the water. This is old Docklands staring at the new, an apparent solidity and sheer mass of industry looking down upon the young interloper’s service and entertainments economy.

The 1930s Millennium Mills have hung on, surviving the closure of the Royal Docks in 1981 and grand renovation plans including an early 2000s scheme to fill the building with luxury apartments, with an aquarium and extreme sports centre next-door for what Ken Livingstone said would become “an international visitor attraction worthy of Europe’s world class city”. The 2008 financial crisis killed the plans, with Millennium Mills remaining empty for urban explorers and ruin-lustful photographers.

The Mill building is the sole architectural remnant of the Royal Docks which closed in 1981, during the gradual urban emptying of industry and docklands since the late 1960s, leading to a decade of pickets, inner-city deprivation, and unemployment. While in opposition, the docks became symbolic of Conservative ambitions to change political and social structures; a 1978 speech in the Isle of Dogs by Geoffrey Howe, soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, called them an “urban wilderness” indicative of the “developing sickness of our society”. He and Michael Heseltine saw the area as a testing ground for the ideological shift they wished for state, markets, economy, and urban centres to make. Once in power, they formed the London Docklands Development Coorporation [LDDC] and acquired over 1,550 acres of land, often compulsory purchased, with pump priming from central government feeding a fund intended to lead to self-sufficiency from sales of premium-rate land on the open market.

Still from news footage, courtesy @ Thames News (Available at:

In 1986 the London financial markets deregulated, easing stock market transactions, encouraging competition of trading commissions and ending the enforced separation between stock traders and the investor advisors. This created a Big Bang explosion in the industry, requiring larger, open floors and a more global outlook for computerised and automated buying and selling of invisible finance. As John Friedmann pointed out in his 1986 World City Hypothesis, major importance was attached to “corporate headquarters, international finance, global transport and communications, and high-level business services”, and Docklands could offer all three in its new architecture. In 1988 developers Olympia & York [O&Y] broke ground on One Canada Square, a tower to rise high above the flattened docks, acting as a symbol of optimism to the world and centrepiece of a vast Canary Wharf development. At the opening ceremony, architect Cesar Pelli proclaimed, “the reality of a hollow object is in the void and not in the walls that define it”.

Needing to maximise income from land sales in a climate of decreasing property speculation after the Black Monday crash, the LDDC set about projecting a confident, desirable and futuristic image of the area through brand awareness, brochures, and promotional videos, putting Docklands onto a global stage. They had always used image and rebranding as a tool of increasing value, from marketing the docks as a hybrid of Venice and New York to whitewashing existing cultures and place names in preference of a new, on-message “Docklands”. But now new ideas were needed to promote the vast potential of the emptiness in a flailing economy, stating that “cultural regeneration might be a fair description for the process of change for which the LDDC is the chosen instrument”.

The Docklands landscape was a temporal and shifting aesthetic responding to free market economics more than any grand plan. By 1988 some plots had been developed three times, each building sold to a developer who demolished it to make way for a larger, shinier project before selling on. As such, the LDDC’s initial foray into using art to bring attention to the area also looked to pop-up projects, including Peter Avery’s production of Aristophanes’ The Birds and the ICA project Accions and Freeze, a 1988 exhibition of Goldsmiths graduates’ art in a Surrey Quays warehouse organised by Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy, and others.

“I think this show here tonight might wake up the city.”

– A spectator at Rendez Vous Houston.

1986 the USA was also struggling with post-industrial reshaping. Houston was in the peak of an oil-slump, unemployment crisis, and real estate collapse. Two months earlier a failed O-ring had caused the space shuttle Challenger to spectacularly break up and explode, killing all seven crew members, live CNN footage providing one of the world’s first live-streamed disasters of the information age. Houston was then a collapsing city where even Texan bravado couldn’t conceal the despair, damage, debt, and mass defaulting of mortgages.

The city needed a kickstart and so the authorities invited French electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre to use the city as the stage for a pop spectacle on a scale never before witnessed. Vast white sheets were draped over downtown skyscrapers transfiguring them into giant canvases for video projections, a backdrop for 1.5 million Houstonians to stare up at amongst searchlights, lasers, and fireworks set to the electronic music of Jarre.

Jarre was a child of the baby-boomer generation and son of Maurice, globally renowned composer of music for over 170 films and TV shows over five decades, most remembered for scoring David Lean’s epics including A Passage to India. This classical heritage lingered in Jean-Michel, who would later enroll to study piano at the Conservatoire de Paris. By day learning classical skills of the institution, by night playing the guitar for several bands including in a brief party scene on film in Des Garcons et des Filles, a 1967 comedy following communally living students in a soon-to-be-demolished derelict house.

In 1968, amongst the cacophony of student protests (internet fan message boards talk of lost TV footage showing Jarre being handcuffed and thrown into a police van), he abandoned the conservatoire and joined Groupe de Recherches Musicales, an electro-acoustic experimental organisation created by Pierre Schaeffer, creator of experimental musique concrete. Jarre’s music quickly found a fusion between the mechanical rhythms developed under Schaeffer and his classical training, with chart success leading to a free 1979 Bastille Day concert for a million Parisians.

Two years later Deng Xiaoping invited Jarre to become the first Western artist to perform in communist China. The mix of largely lyricless tradition and technology that marked the French Revolution deemed safe enough for a somewhat bemused Chinese audience. Then came Houston and its grand civic boosterism.

Mark Fisher, official concert programme. courtesy @ Concessions Ltd, 1988

“Spectacular, imaginative, amazing: words that can be applied equally well to a Jean-Michel Jarre concert or the development of London Docklands.”
– LDDC advert in the Destination Docklands souvenir brochure.

Just as images of the Challenger exploding in mid-air spread across the world, so too did footage of Jarre’s Rendez-vous Houston. In London, media-savvy employees of the LDDC may have seen MTV clips or read about the urban spectacle because while Jarre discussed repeating the concept across other US cityscapes, with meetings lined up in New York and Los Angeles, London’s Docklands would be the next setting for his architectural take-over. The concert Destination Docklands and partnering album Revolutions hung on a three-act structural device of industrial, 1960s cultural and contemporary technological social shifts. As well as offering a stage for the show, this was an opportunity for the LDDC to project its brand identity and message across the world.

As with the transformation of Houston, Jarre partnered with British architect Mark Fisher to turn buildings into scenography. Also a baby-boomer, Fisher had trained at the Architectural Association during their mid-Sixties exploration of radical new ideas for architecture and society: pop-up, portable, inflatable, walking, DIY, ephemeral, and cybernetic. From 1969 Fisher studied for his diploma under Peter Cook as the Archigram founder pushed the architectural agenda towards pleasure, questioning rules of the elite and pulling inspiration from popular consumerism as much as classical tradition. Jarre partnered with him for his architectural extravaganzas after Fisher had already designed The Wall for Pink Floyd and taken his utopian training firmly down the path of spectacle and sensation.

Jean-Michel Jarre at Newham Council licensing meeting, from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, courtesy @ Mike Mansfield Television (1989).

The concert nearly didn’t happen; two weeks before its intended September date the fire services pulled the plug on safety grounds. A frantic period followed in which Jarre visited other cities — the site of Liverpool’s Garden Festival empty since the 1984 event, Glasgow, Manchester, Thurrock, Newcastle, even Alton Towers. It created a media storm and the kind of neoliberal intercity competition now built into national cultural mechanisms. But it may have all been a ruse to scare Newham and the LDDC, and after an extraordinary council licencing meeting for which Jarre flew in, it returned to its site of inspiration, Docklands, albeit for a delayed October date.

Still image from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, Mike Mansfield Television (1989)

Fisher’s visual design of the project was massive. The façade of Millennium Mills had been painted white to offer a vast surface for projected images, part of an enormous triptych including the Co-operative Wholesale Society Mills, an immense 90×100 metres scaffold structure. The concert programme lists some of the projected imagery, offering a snapshot of the curated narrative:

Part 1: Industrial Revolution

Part 2: Cultural Revolution

Part 3: Electronic Revolution

At other points the words “employment” and “no employment” were cast over the hulk of the mill, visible for miles across the very neighbourhoods suffering since the docks’ closure. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds’ worth of fireworks, more than ten times that used for the Royal Wedding two years previously, exploded above the docks with World War II searchlights reflecting from clouds. Later, the previous year’s violence caused by social inequality and deprivation was visually represented by fireworks and projections of flames described by Radio 1 DJ Simon Bates as giving “the impression that the warehouse opposite with its windows red and smoke coming out of them is ablaze”.

“This is where Jean takes a musical […] look, at what he believes will happen to the Docklands area in the 1990s. And of course is using this enormous and clumsy, or clumsy-looking, pair of asbestos gloves for his guitar which otherwise would electrocute him.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary.

At one point an image of a modern office building was projected over the top of the Millennium Mills, giving the slightly macabre impression of a shroud, perhaps a marketing gimmick for the LDDC trying to at once acknowledge and disguise the dirty industry of the area. When Jarre puts on a pair of asbestos gloves to break the green divergent beams of his trademark laser harp, it is impossible not to think of the asbestos embedded into the docks which would have led to the premature deaths of countless industrial workers. An industrial material transfigured to function the new service and culture economy.

Still image from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, courtesy @ Mike Mansfield Television (1989).

The stage formed of ten lashed-together barges shipped from the northeast was designed to float from left to right in front of the crowds, but the sheer weight of equipment and performers rendered it motionless. British autumnal weather deluged the site. Improvised tarpaulins were lashed over equipment while rehearsals saw musicians fighting winds to stay on the floating stage. But despite the technical and seasonal issues, the sheer immensity of spectacle dominated the Royal Docks; footage shows searchlights darting across a sea of static faces starring up in awe.

Jarre’s said his concert was “a tribute to the anonymous victims of every revolution”, dedicating the album to “all the children of the revolution” and “the children of immigrants”. In a coincidental mirroring of The Last of England, the concert ended with Jarre’s song L’Emigrant, a choir of local children – wearing lifejackets in case they fell from the floating stage – offering harmonies to a crescendo of classical and electronic instruments wrapped up in the drama of relentless firework explosions.

Photograph from Destination Docklands, courtesy @ Jonno Stringer

“No-one seems to have moved in almost two hours. They’re standing rock still, loving the fireworks and now seeing “Newham” projected in large letters on the two buildings opposite the stage.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary

This was a total spectacle in a Guy Debord sense. The romanticising of empire and industry and the simplification of the area’s history into a neat narrative to further the LDDC agenda, fits his notion that ”spectacular consumption preserves the old culture in congealed form”. Crowds stood on the dockside, once busy with workers, silently facing the Millennium Mills, enacting Debord’s “deceived gaze and […] false consciousness”, their sense of shared experience “nothing but an official language of separation”. In many ways this event was the counter to the rave culture developing over the previous few years which appropriated locations for community-organised parties; this was an on-message, state-sanctified appropriation of place and history to help the wider objectives of the LDDC.

Still image from concert footage, courtesy @ Mark Lorman (available here)

Outside, ticket touts showed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that would have made Thatcher proud, selling £30 tickets for £50, making £2,000 in an afternoon. While inside, away from the raked seating and vast tract of post-industrial land for the 100,000 punters, sponsors and businessmen enjoyed the corporate entertainment. A video produced by the main sponsor, the Carroll Foundation Trust, intersperses the performance and visuals from the stage with footage from the corporate marquee, businessmen mingling with dignitaries, sponsors, and celebrities. This is where Gerald Carroll worked the room, shaking hands and posing for photos, inviting the key figures of the period to his party. Princess Diana. Robert Maxwell. Jeremy Beadle.

“Our society is built on secrecy, from the “front” organisations which draw an impenetrable screen over the concentrated wealth of their members to the “official secrets” which allow the state a vast field of operation free from any legal constraint, from the often frightening secrets of shoddy production hidden by advertising, to the projections of an extrapolated future.” – Guy Debord

The artist Derek Jarman, who had filmed The Last of England around the site a year before Jarre arrived, said of authority, “all I saw was deceit and bankruptcy”, and in 1992 some of those walls surrounding the hollow voids of finance collapsed. Robert Maxwell, who along with his son Ian received a “special thanks” from Jarre in the liner notes of the live album, drowned after leaving the Mirror Group’s pension scheme drained. Gerald Carroll, who in 1986 put his entire business portfolio, assets, houses, and art into his Foundation Trust, saw his speculative empire collapse in massive debt and allegations of fraud. Hollow objects. The promoters of Destination Docklands ran up spiralling bills from the delay, weather, and sheer scale, leaving countless suppliers and workers unpaid for their work seeking damages in the courts – the projected façade of the spectacle concealed the failures of its production.

Even counter-cultures got absorbed into the late-Eighties neoliberal race for profit. The warehouse rave scene was turning from community-led right-to-the city activation of redundant spaces into an entrepreneur-led business. Saving money earnt from gambling to enter property development, Tony Colston-Hayter turned raves into vast pop-up festivals, inviting media attention and consequential police pressure against the rave scene. His PR manager Paul Staines, then working in a Conservative Party right-wing pressure group and now as blogger Guido Fawkes, considered Colston-Hayter one of “Thatcher’s children” with an entrepreneurial spirit “pushing the boundaries of free enterprise”. This was when the culture industry exploded, and everyone wanted some of it, or to benefit from its glory.

Mark Fisher, official concert programme. courtesy @ Concessions Ltd, 1988.

“We’re live on Radio 1 in stereo, on FM. We’re broadcasting the Destination Docklands concert as it happens from, guess where, from Docklands, with 100,000 people. It’s freezing cold here. On my left-hand side are camera crews from Brazil, the USA, from Canada, from Germany, from all parts of Europe, from Australia, from New Zealand. They are absolutely frozen but hypnotised by what’s happening on stage and in and around the docks.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary

Destination Docklands was one of the first globally mediated cultural events on this scale, incorporating the music, dance, fireworks, architecture, and awed crowds now firmly embedded in contemporary pop culture. Fisher would continue to revolutionise the large-scale pop spectacle, developing the superstructures that U2, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, and Elton John carry around the world – the lo-fi radicalism of 1968 subsumed into the late-twentieth-century capitalist drive for sensation and scale. This sense of event is now rolled up with neoliberal hypergentrification and push for vast capital returns on urban redevelopment. The launch of Canary Wharf’s tower in 1992 and that of the Shard in 2012 were mediated affairs with live music, lasers, and searchlights.

The visuals of industrial workers, Queen Victoria, colonial success, pop revolution, and James Bond that congealed the Millennium Mills in light were witnessed again for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony up the road in Stratford. Seen by a global audience of a billion, the ceremony was executive produced by Fisher and had similarities to Jarre’s sequenced narrative of eras set to a classically infused pop beat. No modern-day event is as spectacular as the Olympics, loud enough to distract from the compulsory purchasing of land from profitable businesses and rooted communities to make way for the grander and shinier cultural offerings planned to follow the few weeks of sport.

2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, courtesy @ Matt Lancashire

Millennium Mills has now been scrubbed clean for the next chapter of its life. The docks it sits within have been undergoing another cleansing since the 1980s to form a “new piece of the city”. There is no space in that new city for the narratives that Jarman explored in The Last of England, or for the complexities which Jarre acknowledged and discussed in interview even if the spectacle of his concert didn’t allow so much space for nuance or subtlety. There is now no room for other narratives to the prescribed, official one. The trajectory of neoliberal urban politics since 1988 has taken us to a place where it has become harder to separate the function of art from the wider capital economy. It is now so deeply enmeshed within the very physical changing face of London, even if it’s only a sacrificial veneer or a popup spectacle moment. The Millennium Mills have not only survived throughout, now a single white tooth standing as the history and architecture has been extracted but have been repeatedly co-opted into the changing representation of the area.

Congealed, a preserved fragment.

Silvertown Quays, CGI rendering of proposed development, 2017, courtesy @ Silvertown Partnership (available here)