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An Uninvited Groupie


The Pheasantry sits at 152 King's Road in Chelsea, London. Eric Clapton shared a first floor flat with psychedelic poster artist Martin Sharp here in 1967/68. (Sharp would later design Cream's Disraeli Gears cover art.) While this building has a long and varied history of its own, (in the 18th century it was used to raise new breeds of oriental pheasants and it was a club in the 1930s where Dylan Thomas often drank) I want to use it as the beginning of a bit of a rock and roll history lesson. (photo credit: © RockTourLondon)


I am a big Clapton fan so when I made my first trip to King's Road half a dozen years ago, my only intention was to have some lunch at the Pizza Express that now occupies the building. You know, just to say I ate at Eric's. Well, not being able to just leave it at just a slice, I decided to read a little more on Clapton's time here.



In early 1967 a police officer named Norman 'Nobby' Pilcher rang the bell to Clapton's flat calling out "special delivery". Eric, having been tipped off to Pilcher's practices left via a back door leaving Nobby's bust well, a bust. After reading that tidbit my research veered away from Clapton and on to Pilcher. What a piece of work this guy was.

(photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)



Pilcher joined the Metropolitan Police (MET) in 1956 after serving with the military police because, as he's been quoted as saying in a book he published in 2020, he wanted to "do something sincerely useful." (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)


After a musician's admission to using LSD was revealed on a TV interview, Pilcher claimed the higher ups at MET Headquarters were breathing down his neck to make some high profile drug busts of big names as a way of deterring young people from doing drugs. Detective Sergeant Pilcher set out to do just that and he put pop stars in his crosshairs.



He started with Lionel Bart and Dusty Springfield after receiving tip offs from informants. Springfield ended up pleading guilty and paying a fine. He arrested Donovan as well.


(photos obtained from Bing - free to use and share)





In early 1967, Mick Jagger was suing the tabloid newspaper News Of The World (a newspaper that crashed and burned after 168 years in print in 2011 following revelations of phone hacking...took a while to get them on something, apparently) for libel because it had published horrible stories about him and then girlfriend, Marianne Faithful. (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)






On 12 February 1967, Pilcher and a crew of 12 officers, acting on a tip from News Of The World , raided the West Sussex Estate, The Redlands, of Rolling Stone Keith Richards. Richards was hosting a weekend party when the warrant issued under the 'dangerous drugs act' was served. No arrests were made at the time but Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with drug offenses. Marianne Faithful, who was taking a bath at the time of the raid, only had time to wrap herself in a fur rug. For some reason, someone on the raid team concocted a ridiculous story of a candy bar being wedged in a certain area of Faithful's anatomy. News Of The World ran rampant with that fictitious story.

(photos obtained from Bing - free to use and share)




Nobby's failed attempt on Clapton didn't seem to deter him however when in May of 1967, Brian Jones' Chelsea flat was raided. A constable found a ball of blue yarn and asked, a recently roused from a dead sleep, Jones if it was his. Brian, in a fog, said it could be at which point the dramatic unravelling of the yarn revealed cannabis resin. Jones denied it was his professing he didn't use cannabis as it made him irate. He was hauled off to the Chelsea Police Station where reporters were waiting to be sure they got pictures and the story. How convenient.

(photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)





In August of 1968, Pilcher and team raided and arrested saxophonist Tubby Hayes in his Chelsea flat for heroin possession.



In late September of 1968, rumors began to swirl that John Lennon was Pilcher's next target. Having just left his wife Cynthia, John and Yoko Ono now resided in Ringo Starr's Montaqu Square flat that had recently been vacated by Jimi Hendrix. Being aware of the talk on the street, Lennon personally cleaned the flat including vacuuming the carpets to be sure nothing could be found if Pilcher came to visit. Just before noon on 18 October 1968, Lennon and Ono were awakened by a knock at the door. Looking outside, John saw eight policemen and a Daily Express cameraman. Lennon demanded to see a warrant, well within his rights, which Pilcher saw as a stalling tactic. (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)


Not finding anything on their initial search, Pilcher called for two sniffer dogs which found cannabis resin. Lennon was charged with possession and for obstruction for 'stalling'. John would later say that Pilcher offered to drop the obstruction charge and any action against Yoko (which probably would have resulted in her deportation from Britain) if he'd admit to possession. He did so to spare Yoko, who miscarried days later. While Lennon was being booked, Pilcher actually had the nerve to have John autograph two Beatles albums for his kids.




In March 1969, George Harrison's home was visited by Pilcher. Harrison and wife, Pattie Boyd, lived way outside Pilcher's jurisdiction in Esher and this event raised way more questions than just location. George freely admitted having a small bit of pot in the house but the amount and location in which it was found was way outside George's admission. "I'm a tidy man," George is quoted as saying when Pilcher showed Harrison the large quantity they'd supposedly uncovered in a shoe. "I keep my socks in the sock drawer and stash in the stash box. It's not mine." (source: zani.co.uk) (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)




That Beatles questionable raid slowed down Pilcher's antics but not before one more incident. This time it was, again, a musician but he wasn't British. In March of 1970, Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops was giving a press conference with his band at the Mayfair Hotel in London when he was interrupted to be questioned about drug and ammunition possession,. Stubbs was led out of the press conference and taken to a nearby police station where he was charged and arrested. At his trial in May of that year, he denied having any drugs but did admit to having a few bullets in his luggage as it was common practice for Detroit artists to often carry guns when touring America. The bullets must have inadvertently been left in his bag. For the ammunition he paid a small fine but he was acquitted on the drug charges. (source: Adampwhite.com) (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)


So, good old Norman was often referenced in popular song and comedy skits after his string of interactions with musicians. It is believed that the term "Semolina Pilchard" in The Beatles song "I Am The Walrus" is meant to be him. Monty Python have also poked at him as well calling him Spiny Norman in their Piranha Brother sketch. In another Monty Python act, Graham Clapman's police character tells a man that he's under arrest and must come with him to the station because "I'm charging you with illegal possession of whatever we happen to have down there." In Eric Idle's 1978 Beatles piece, The Rutles, Pilcher was satirized as 'Brian Plant'. Even as recent as 2003, the band Primus wrote a song called Pilcher's Squad making reference to his busts. There were also more than a few people that called him "Groupie Pilcher" since he made it a habit to be in the photos of rock stars being led away. You know, photographed by those newspaper photographers that were so conveniently present at those 'surprise' raids.


It all finally went sideway for old Nobby in the early 70s when he claimed a drug smuggler was innocent because he was working with the police. He did so in court under oath. That smuggler was convicted and served time as he was caught red handed however, the implication that Pilcher made at that trial, saying his superior was corrupt and involved, gave people reason to take a real close look at Norman's behavior. Well, that closer look raised a lot of questions and uncovered evidence that made those musicians claims of being framed come more into focus.


Pilcher resigned from the police force and tried to flee to Australia but was turned back to authorities in the UK where, in November of 1972, he was charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and that he allegedly committed perjury in that drug smuggler case. In September of 1973 he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison with Justice Melford Stevenson quoted as saying, "You poisoned the wells of criminal justice, and set about it deliberately." (source: wikipedia)



He lived out his sentence at Ford Prison in West Sussex where he played in a local football league during his incarceration. Upon release he worked at a driving school and then ran a care home. In his 2020 book, Bent Coppers, Pilcher denies ever having arrested Donovan, says he never went after Clapton (I guess because that one failed), swears he never planted evidence but does claim it was common practice within the confines of the MET Drug Square to allow dealers to operate freely if they met their quota of ratting out a sufficient number of the customers and/or rivals. (photo obtained from Bing - free to use and share)


Norman Pilcher died in March 2021 of cancer. He was 85 years old.


Our video tour The Stories Of Some Chelsea Places visits The Pheasantry. Click here https://videolibrary.rocktourlondon.com/programs/the-stories-of-some-chelsea-places-a75ee5?categoryId=95943 to rent the video and visit it and a bunch of other cool rock and roll places and get their stories.


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(additional source: The Guardian article by Duncan Campbell, 18Oct2020)


© RockTourLondon 2022

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