There’s Dr Dre, in his immaculate Air Force 1s, the only sneaker he ever wears. Nearby, in the 70-capacity VIP Lizard Lounge, is Jimmy Iovine, Dre’s fellow member of the billionaire boys’ club since the pair sold their Beats headphones biz to Apple. Here’s Joy Crookes, being offered a little tub of Eminem’s signature Mom’s Spaghetti.
And all around in this listed, brick-built, 2,500-capacity, 19th-century former power station in the shadow of the Shepherd’s Bush Westfield, London’s fleet-footed and fashion-forward are running slick rings round the rink to a DJ soundtrack of Afrobeats and live sets from Central Cee, General Levy and Kaytranada.
This is the opening night of Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace. It’s the new London roller skate rink that’s bringing a legendary Los Angeles institution back to life four decades after it rolled off into the sunset (in flames — actual flames).
‘I’ve never been roller skating before,’ trainspotting ledge Francis Bourgeois tells me as he queues to hire a pair of Flipper’s £500 blue suede skates. ‘And I fell down the stairs last week, and my knee is really dodgy. So I hope nothing bad happens. It’ll be a mighty embarrassment if I dislocate a knee in front of all these well-known people.’
Our hostess: supermodel Liberty Ross, a woman who has been invested in the fable of Flipper’s literally since birth. The 44-year-old Hammersmith native spent her first seven years in LA after her dad, Ian ‘Flipper’ Ross, decided late-Seventies London was too drab by half. Big on ideas but low on cash, this serial swashbuckler figured opening a skating rink in West Hollywood was a much better idea for his wife and five — count ’em — children. In a nod to their impending new home in America, he and wife Bunty named their infant daughter in honour of the land of the free.
But even if you are one of the greatest British models of the past 30 years (and married to Iovine), getting Flipper’s red polyurethane wheels off the ground after the original crashed and burned following a crazy, three-year whirlwind from 1979 to 1981 is no small task. So Ross has a partner.
Enter, with his pecs out, shades on and dripping in swag, Usher. He’s seriously invested in Flipper’s. How invested? The R&B demigod is wearing a gold and diamond-encrusted pendant in the shape of a roller skate with actual moving wheels. It’s not quite life-size, but nearly. How many carats in there, Mr Usher?
‘You can ask Jacquie Aiche, who designed it,’ he says of the luxury LA jeweller. As to why he’s a partner in this London venture, he has a nice line ready when I talk to him and Ross in Flipper’s the evening before launch. ‘It’s part of the roll-igion,’ he twinkles.
‘This is one of America’s greatest pastimes — and future times,’ he continues, still punning like a champ. ‘Skating is a culture that brings us together and gives us a creative outlet. It’s a reminder that we’re all kids inside. And Liberty’s father’s history, and her history associated with it, really give the validation. Then we build up from there.’
As Ross tells it, while we talk in one of the skate wheel-shaped red booths next to the venue’s American diner Hot Dogs and Caviar, that history could have been very different.
I really thought roller skating was going to save the world
Her dad was good friends with Denny Cordell, Argentine-born British record producer of a slew of wiggy Sixties bands, including The Moody Blues and Procol Harem. Ross and Cordell had fought in the Sixties cultural wars, with Ross working on pirate station Radio Caroline and, later, with Bunty, making fabulous dresses.
By the time the mid-Seventies rolled around, Ross was looking for a new adventure. Then, one night in 1976, he read a story in the most influential publication of the day (or indeed any day), the Evening Standard. Written by Emma Soames, journalist granddaughter of Winston Churchill who went on to edit the very magazine you are reading now, it reported that, in Ross’s words, ‘uptown girls in New York City were going downtown to this roller rink in Brooklyn called The Empire’.
Ross and Cordell had seen the future and it was rink-shaped. Then Bunty found a potential venue: an old cinema in west London. ‘It was the right size, and it was for sale, for 20,000 quid,’ Ross, 79, says when we speak on the phone a few hours before show time. ‘Then Denny came over from LA for a look, and he said: “What’s it gonna be Flipper, Harrow Road or Hollywood?”’ For this fun-loving, adventure-seeking, counter-cultural pirate, it was a no-brainer.
‘My dad’s absolutely mad — who on Earth would do this?’ marvels Liberty now.
Ian Ross landed in LA like a skate through a window, and with messianic, proper Seventies zeal. As he says in Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace 1979-1981, a gorgeous coffee-table tome put together by his daughter: ‘I really thought roller skating was going to save the world.’
That passion for the hobby’s inclusive, all-welcoming spirit was born of a brutal truth: the man with his name above the door couldn’t skate. And that, in turn, related to the tragic origin of his nom de groovy.
Aged 17, Ross was in a car crash, which badly damaged his foot. In time-honoured cruel teenage style, this earned him the nickname Flipper. ‘He has a legit flipper foot,’ says Liberty. ‘Because of that he was unable to skate. So that’s always been part of his fascination with the culture.’
For three heady years in LA, that culture boomed at Flipper’s. Given lift-off with a $750,000 investment from Motown founder Berry Gordy, the lavishly decorated palace on the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevard became a roller Mecca. By day, kids and teenagers would hang out and learn to skate, with Flipper’s fast becoming the city’s best birthday party spot. By night, LA’s fun-loving masses rocked and rolled, alongside celebrities galore.
Vintage images of those slebs ’n’ civilians adorn the walls of Flipper’s London: Robin Williams, standing alongside Ross, who’s dressed unfathomably as Napoleon. Jane Fonda, sprawling on the floor next to a rakishly moustachioed Jon Voight. Liberty’s older brother Atticus, then a skate-mad adolescent, now an Oscar-winning soundtrack composer in partnership with Trent Reznor. Elton John, his glasses on upside down and mouth agape at something we can’t see. ‘This was at his birthday party,’ explains Liberty, ‘and he had a dick-shaped birthday cake — like, a huge cock.’
Flipper’s also became a killer live music venue, hosting disco, post-punk and new wave gigs galore. Joy Division were due to play, although that never came off. One future megastar, though, definitely did perform — during his Dirty Mind tour on 31 March 1981.
‘It was that place in LA,’ says Liberty. ‘That’s why Prince called my dad up and was like: “I need to break the west coast. I need to play at Flipper’s.” It had the edge he was looking for. And then, boom — he became PRINCE after that.’
But by now the writing was on the wall, and the coke was in the bathroom. ‘Everything changed in the Eighties,’ says Liberty. ‘The drugs got harder and it all got much more debauched. The LAPD gave my dad an ultimatum: either shut Flipper’s, go to jail or get the hell out of America.’
The LAPD gave my dad an ultimatum: either shut Flipper’s, go to jail or get the hell out of America
Seven months later, the doors closed. It was, appropriately, Halloween. ‘The sheriffs were ready for a fight, they ringed the building and had their nightsticks out,’ remembers Ian. Then the Flipper’s regulars ‘came rolling into West Hollywood and there was a pitched battle, people turning over dumpsters and cars, setting things on fire. It was fantastic! It’s better to burn out than fade away, right?’
Still, Ian ‘Flipper’ Ross insisted to me that last week’s reopening wasn’t going to be triggering for him (or for Bunty, who was also attending). ‘Flipper’s had to end — things had got out of hand. It was too popular and there was too much mayhem.’ At last week’s launch spectacular, there was indeed mayhem. But of the good-natured, fantastically dressed, whizzing-round-the-rink kind, with party-goers fuelled by endless free champagne and Eminem’s mum’s pasta — and by an evangelical enthusiasm for the uniting power of roller skating. As one über-cool rollerballer’s sweatshirt slogan had it: ‘Skating Is My Therapy’.
For Liberty, that ethos means providing a safe space for youngsters to hang out. ‘That’s so important now, especially in London where a lot of youth centres have shut. I want to give kids something to get them off the streets. And it’s such a healthy, fun hobby.’
Equally, like its OG LA iteration, she’s also intent on making it a west London hotspot, with club nights, live music and the option to come along and just party. You don’t have to get your skates on to enjoy Flipper’s.
‘I don’t think it’ll ever be as cool as the original,’ she admits sanguinely, because, well, Seventies. ‘But I would like it to last longer!’
Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, Ariel Way, W12 (flippers.world)